[Featured Article] Championing the autism community, one person at a time
Published in: The Star
Publication date: 2nd December 2022
PETALING JAYA: Most teenagers have their minds set on school, spending time with family and friends or doing their favourite hobbies.
For Serena Zara Taufiq, there was a much greater calling and even bigger ambitions for the 14-year-old from here.
Unlike her peers, Serena’s sights were firmly set on raising awareness on autism.
Stemming from her own experience in caring for her autistic younger sister – Sharleez Zara Taufiq, 11, – she made it a point to educate fellow Malaysians on the misconceptions and to appreciate these individuals for their abilities.
“I was seven when Sharleez was diagnosed with autism. I saw how my parents sought various ways to assist her.
“I knew then how supporting a family member with autism required immense physical and emotional strength,” she said in an interview.
Serena recalled they were shunned in public areas, shopping malls and restaurants whenever her sister had an outburst.
“It was very challenging for us as we tried our best in caring for Sharleez.
“After going through these experiences, I knew I had to do something,” she said.
Filled with a burning passion, Serena began her own initiative dubbed – Serena’s Secret – which was a jewellery business to help raise funds for her sister’s treatment.
The astonishing part was how she started the initiative at the tender age of eight.
“I always had a passion in creating jewellery and thought to myself why not do it to give back to others.
“So I pitched the idea to my parents and with their support, was able to make this a reality.
“I also roped in Sharleez and her twin (Sofieya Zara) into my project with the funds being channelled to autism-focused non-governmental organisations (NGO),” she said.
Serena said many families with autism children are struggling to cope with the high costs of therapy.
“I have a strong desire to teach autistic individuals to develop their talents so that they can secure their own jobs in the future,” she said.
As Serena began selling her products at bazaars across the Klang Valley to raise awareness and funds for the autistic community, she began receiving messages from families with autistic members.
“They requested help to teach jewellery beading to their (autistic) family members.
“This saw my family opening up our home to welcome these individuals for such lessons.
“Over time, we also paid these individuals to help man our stalls to further train them in adapting to a working environment,’’ she added.
Prior to the movement control order, at least six students attended her beading lessons.
They were from all ages, from six to 48.
Despite having to juggle between school work, Serene still found time to lend a hand in helping the autistic community.
“The key is time management,” she said.
When asked whether there were any standout moments from her initiatives, Serena recalled how her efforts saw several autistic community members make a living on their own.
“There was a man who came to learn beading lessons. Over time, he grew more proficient and later opened his own store selling cakes and other goods.
“Another autistic boy who gradually learned basic beading skills went on to help his father to run a cafe with other autism staff members,” she said.
Despite her cheerful demeanour, Serena said her journey was not without challenges.
“People underestimated me due to my age.
“They have this perception that only adults can do what I did.
“For me, age is not a factor as having a strong passion for doing good will always drive you forward,” she said.
On her future plans, Serena said she would embark on a hydroponic initiative which would see her training members of the autistic community in the agricultural field.
“My passion will always be to help them adapt and develop their talents.
“No matter how hard, I will never give up in order to make things better for them,” she said.
On Sept 15, while celebrating Sharleez and Sofieya’s birthday at home along with members of the autistic community, Serena received a surprise call.
“It was from Star Foundation, informing me that I had won an award.
“Shortly after, I shared the good news and hugged Sharleez, telling her that she had won.
“It was truly a win for the autistic community as a whole.”
For her noble efforts, Serena is recognised as one of the 10 winners of Star Golden Hearts Award 2022 (SGHA) under the individual category.
SGHA is an annual award by The Star and Yayasan Gamuda that celebrates everyday Malaysian unsung heroes. For more details, visit sgha.com.my.