In 2016, statistics suggested that one in every 100 children in India has autism. The numbers are only likely to increase in time, and autism is being regarded as no less than an epidemic. Yet, due to lack of awareness, disorders like autism and Down syndrome are commonly treated with stigma and special needs individuals are often subjected to harassment for their inability to react ‘normally’ in public places and situations.
Geetha VM and her husband Rathish P Subramaniam aim to change mindsets and sensitise people to the needs of special children (and adults) with their #supporticon campaign.
The campaign comes from the couple’s personal experience with their son Om, now seven years old, who has autism spectrum disorder. “It is a sensory processing disorder, so for instance, what is soothing flute music for me in a restaurant can cause him great distress,” says Geetha, who quit her job to take care of her son. She confesses to entering a long stage of depression, guilt and blame. “It took us almost a year, but we finally enjoy life as it is.”
Determined to expose their child to a conventional upbringing, Geetha and Rathish began to take Om on outings and weekend excursions. Friends and family members also played an important part, bringing their kids to play with Om. But there were many hiccups too. “One time, a woman walked up to me and said ‘Please mother your child better’. I was angry, because it wasn’t because I managed things badly or I was a bad mother.” Such episodes made Geetha both angry and sad, but the couple decided to face the situation with dignity.
“We thought — let’s start educating society. We will be open about our lives and Om. If I saw someone staring at us, I’d walk up to them and talk about my child. Wonderfully, most people understood. They started with sympathy but gradually made way for empathy and understanding.”
The Support Icon campaign — conceptualised and launched by Rathish — emerged from their desire to spread awareness on such disorders.
The Support Icon logo is depicted by two smileys leaning on each other, implying the support each one of us needs in life. A two-toned ribbon wraps the two smileys, acting as a connection between people. The need for support — from parents, friends and peers — is universal, and Geetha and Rathish aim to bring to the world’s attention that special needs individuals are no different.
Though Geetha was concerned about how they would make the campaign popular, Rathish emphasized that this wasn’t a campaign for short-term goals. She says, “He was clear that we want genuine support.” Fully aware that it would be hard, the duo launched the campaign with a video conceptualised and directed by Rathish.
“I thought funds would be the difficult part, but we raised the money quickly and many of those who worked on the video didn’t even charge anything,” says Geetha. “But the parents turned out to be apprehensive about having their children on video. Fortunately Mrs. Santhi Karamcheti, the principal of Edventure Academy (where Om studies) who is very dedicated to special children, offered her help. She called us to the school where I made a presentation and we finally made the video, which we launched on World Disability Day.”
The video initially received popularity among those who were part of the special needs community. Hoping to spread the word further, Geetha approached her friend Mary Ann George, a cake artist, to bake a cake with the logo. Mary took charge, not only making a cake herself but getting other members of the Indian Cake Artists Association to participate too.
The cake baking challenge launched #baketosupport campaign, inviting people to bake a cake and gift it to a special needs individual in their community.
Mary Ann George (extreme left) and other participants of the #baketosupport challenge
In just three weeks, 100 bakers — a mix of professionals, home chefs, junior bakers and cake artistes — made cakes to participate in the campaign. The bakers came from not just around India, but other countries too. Geetha help campaign participants in reaching out to special needs individuals or organisations in their vicinity.
According to Geetha, the campaign has also encouraged 20 volunteers to launch bigger projects: from a Coimbatore resident who is organising a vocational course in baking to a volunteer in Chennai who has offered to teach board games to special needs individuals. Remya Dharmarajan, another volunteer for #baketosupport, and mother to a special needs child, designed customised templates for all the cake submissions.
They have also showcased dummy cakes at many companies in Bengaluru, introducing a few thousand employees to disorders like autism and Down syndrome.
As the #baketosupport campaign has gained momentum, Geetha and Rathish have extended it to last through the month of April, which is also World Autism Month.
Bakers, from Kolkata to Malaysia, participate in the #baketosupport campaign
Encouraging participants to share their cake photos with hashtags on social media pages, the campaign aims to create widespread awareness for special needs individual. “We need people to come forward and spend time with the children” says Geetha, recalling stories of how the campaign has brought smiles on the faces of many a special child.
Ultimately, the aim of the campaign is to make people understand that the apparent difference between ‘normal’ and special needs people is really a matter of perspective. Rising above stigma and lack of awareness, Geetha and Rathish hope to bring about a change in societal outlook and its approach towards children and adults with special needs.
As the couple says, “Research has proved that children who grow up with special needs children grow up into fine adults with values such as empathy, respect, care and love. We thought the society was arrogant but realised they were just ignorant. So we started this small journey to transform souls into understanding special needs children.”