Like most children, Muhammad Arif Zulkarnain enjoys play gyms and toy stores at shopping malls. But at every outing, his mother, entrepreneur Putri Nadeeya Wan Mohd Zahari, worries. She doesn’t know when her son might throw a temper tantrum.
Her five-year-old was diagnosed with mild autism in 2017. He is also hyperactive.
“Muhammad Arif has normal social skills, but he has a limited attention span and lacks patience. Whenever he has a meltdown, he shouts or rolls on the floor. It’s very challenging. Often, my mother and my helper accompany us to help take care of him,” says Putri Nadeeya, 35.
She had to live her worst nightmare one day when Arif accidentally hit a child at a shopping mall.
“Arif was emotionally distressed and hit a young girl. The next minute, the child’s mother called security. Even though I apologised, I got a shelling from the child’s mother. The problem is a large majority of people are uninformed and unaware of autism,” she said.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is recognised as a developmental disability that affects an individual’s socialisation skills, among others.
One of the biggest challenges parents of kids with autism face is taking them out in public as crowds, noise and bright lights can be overwhelming and lead to a sensory overload. This can result in tantrums and meltdowns, So, families with special needs children avoid places like shopping malls.
But to support those with ASD and raise awareness, Sunway Putra Mall in Kuala Lumpur has embarked on an initiative to make its shopping centre autism-friendly. Called Autsome, the effort is aimed at advocating for people with autism and educating the public.
“Some people are still in the dark about autism. When a child screams in a mall, they dismiss it as bad behaviour. Parents are blamed whenever their kids throw a tantrum. Some people just lack knowledge on ASD,” explains Sunway Putra Mall general manager Phang Sau Lian.
Phang and her team were inspired to make the mall autism-friendly after realising the estimated number of autistic individuals in Malaysia stands at 300,000, with many more unreported cases.
“We realised many of us know or have a relative or close friend with an autistic child. We have witnessed how parents of children with autism struggle to handle their kids in public. This inspired us,” says Phang, who worked with the Autism Behavioural Centre to design the mall.
So, every Tuesday from 10am-5pm, the mall will reduce the brightness of its lights and lower the volume of its ambient music.
Families of children with autism can enjoy a number of privileges and services. This includes an Autsome kit comprising a car sticker, a wrist band for easy identification, and useful information on how they can enjoy the autism-friendly facilities.
Parents can register online and collect the kit from the concierge on the mall’s ground floor.
There are autism-friendly facilities available every day to accommodate the needs of autistic individuals, such as a calm room that is like a “panic room” for those feeling overwhelmed.
There’s a Sensory Wall on Level 2, and other activities suited to children with autism on Level 3. There’s also reserved parking and shopping assistance that includes service like helping hands to carry shopping bags.
Sunway Putra Mall staff have undergone training on how to manage autistic kids and support their family during an incident.
National Autism Society of Malaysia (Nasom) chairman Feilina Feisol is pleased with the mall’s initiative. Her 23-year-old autistic son, Naim Rafaie Abdul Rahim, seems comfortable in the calm room.
“With the room, children with autism can finally have a place to cool off after a meltdown. Naim gets easily distracted by loud music at shopping malls. Usually, I have to put on earphones in his ears whenever we go out shopping.
“At the calm room, he can finally play with his iPad without his earphones. It’s brilliant to have a room where he can relax and take it easy. Hopefully more malls will follow suit and offer these facilities for children with special needs.”