It is the same world we all live in.
When my son Asim was five years old, he was diagnosed with borderline autism. My husband and I had always thought he simply had speech and learning delays.
My husband started looking into schools for children with special needs. As a military officer, he is trained to be fearless and expected to be tough. However that night, when he came home after a day of scouting schools for Asim, he locked himself in the bathroom and cried helplessly.
Many, including my own father, blamed me for Asim’s condition. They said it’s a “curse”. They said we must keep Asim at home.
I have never believed it, of course. In fact, the more I hear about such comments, the more determined I am about turning this “curse” into a blessing. I told myself, I will not let my child suffer under the words of people who want him hidden from the world.
Asim was a hyperactive child who kept us busy all the time. It wasn’t long before the principal at the special school saw the potential in his endless fuel of energy, and suggested we give the Special Olympics program a go.
That was a turning point in Asim’s life!
He was so happy on the field during his training sessions, and we were delighted to discover Asim’s talent in athletics. What made us happier was seeing Asim run freely and happily, just like other children. Sports helped him become calmer and more focused in the day, and he slept better at night too.
When Asim turned eight, he traveled without his family, with his team to his first Special Olympics competition in Lahore, and won his first medals.
Asim kept to his athletics training and competitions – we had a great routine for the next few years. He continued to flourish and went to China for the World Games in 2007, winning two silver medals in the 400-meters run and long jump.
One day, when Asim was a bright-eyed 14-year-old, we decided we would let him try out a new sport. At his first swimming lesson, he refused to get into the pool, but his coach refused to give up and convinced us to leave our son in his hands. We were apprehensive, but we recognized we needed to let go.
Thanks to his coach’s perseverance, Asim soon overcame his fear and was able to continue training in the pool with other students. We never sat in on the lessons and would leave after dropping him off. No one else knew about his disabilities.
Asim made great progress, and within a year, his coach decided to sign him up for the school’s swimming gala, an annual competition for all.
I asked the coach, “But how can Asim possibly compete with the rest?”
The coach assured me of his abilities and told me to have faith in Asim.
On the day of the swimming race, Asim came in fourth. The crowd, unaware of his condition, cheered and invited him to share his thoughts. But Asim couldn’t articulate his feelings on stage, so people came up to me and asked, “Your son… why he can’t speak properly?”
At that moment, I knew I had to step up. Holding the microphone on the podium, I shared with the crowd that Asim was born with autism, and therefore cannot express himself well. Everyone was shocked.
This was an important moment not just for Asim, but for me as well. It meant a lot to be talking about him in public for the first time as well as raising awareness about the capabilities of athletes with intellectual disabilities.
In 2015, Asim was selected to represent Pakistan for the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles. However, because of the way his feet would twist and slow him down when he swims, several coaches did not think he would do well in the competition.
Again, Asim defied expectations. He scored the first ever gold medal for the Pakistan swim team!
I have been a housewife with less education for a long part of my life. But Asim has been such a huge inspiration to me, motivating me to push my personal limits. I went on to pursue my college degree, and then a master’s degree in Gender Studies. My research was on “The Psychological Effects on the Mothers of Special Children” and I had to interview more than a hundred mothers of children with special needs. And so, with the help of Special Olympics Pakistan, I began my journey to advocate social awareness for children and youth with intellectual disabilities.
The journey isn’t always easy. It is hard convincing families who have been hiding their child away from the world to come out of their bubble and receive support. I started and expanded our Family Support Network program in all regions. With the help of volunteers, we even managed to get Asim and a few other athletes of Special Olympics Pakistan jobs at a food factory. It was a challenge to integrate them into the mainstream workforce. We faced problems as other employees lacked awareness and were apprehensive. We had a counseling session with the employees where we explained our athletes’ conditions, assured them and convinced them to give the children a chance. It’s been five years, and they are now permanent employees of the factory. Today, the factory has 14 athletes from Special Olympics Pakistan working as as full-time employees. Another milestone achieved!
I believe my job will never be done. Looking at how Asim overcomes his challenges pushes me to be better every day. I continue to share my takeaways from my Special Olympics training to families facing the same challenges as us.
To every parent, sibling, family member and friend of a person with intellectual disabilities, thank you for reading my story and taking a step closer to understanding our world. It is the same world we all live in. I hope everyone can accept people with intellectual disabilities as the way they are, and give them a chance.