Autism is often regarded as being swept under the rug. Few people reportedly want to talk about it, either because of not knowing how to broach the subject or due to a lack of knowledge in having a proper discourse.
A new streetwear initiative in Malaysia is now seeking to change that. The Autism Streetwear Project wants to "rebrand" the condition so that it does not remain a taboo subject – instead, giving it a more welcomed identity.
Founder Dr Khew E Joon says it is all about getting the word out and educating people. One effective way to achieve this is to draw a parallel between autism and streetwear.
He notes that streetwear was not something always accepted. The style of dressing has proven to be controversial in the past, where it was linked to rebellion among the youths or countercultures like grunge and hip-hop.
"Today, it is very much mainstream – even celebrated," he comments, about how the public eventually came to understand that streetwear is just another form of dressing.
"Street culture activities like skateboarding or hip-hop dance are actually beneficial for children with autism as well, and can help them with their development," he points out.
Khew, who has a doctorate in zoology and is also a registered behaviour technician, truly believes that fashion has the ability to make a strong lifestyle statement.
"I'm not saying streetwear is autism, but we are using it to reach out to people through it," he notes. "Why we are doing this is to get autism more widely accepted, so that more people will understand it."
As it is, streetwear has taken the fashion world by storm. Big fashion houses have embraced it, sending out sneakers, hoodies and caps on their runways.
Once a subculture in the industry, it has jumped the curb and is now a well-integrated part of luxury fashion. So why not autism, in the context of a broader society?
A good cause
The Autism Streetwear Project will release a collection of streetwear designs with the word "autism" proudly emblazoned on them. It incorporates the letters "u+i" in the form of a logo, which calls for everyone to come together and foster acceptance.
The initiative has already received support from labels like Boy London, X-Large, Extroverted Introvert and Eliot. An experiential pop-up store is also planned for the near future.
Khew says that he is open to collaborate with street artists and other streetwear brands to help generate exposure. Any form of partnership will be appreciated too.
"We are hoping to have more 'street passionate' people and brands to join us, to further promote autism acceptance. This can happen, but it will need you and I to make it happen."
Apart from the Autism Streetwear Project, he also founded Animals For Young, a learning centre that assists children and adolescents with special needs using cats, dogs and even horses.
The perceived taboo when it comes to autism should not be taken lightly. Khew says that even parents with autistic children are quite reluctant to talk about it.
"Autism is not a disease. It is not something negative. People with autism are unique individuals. Having the condition does not stop them from achieving great things," he adds.
"Hopefully, with this association with fashion, it will be something less intimidating to talk about. It needs to be a matter we can openly discuss."
According to the National Autism Society Of Malaysia (Nasom), autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life due to a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain.
Citing data from the US, Nasom's website states that the incidence for autism is at one in 68 children. This means an approximate 9,000 children in Malaysia are born with autism every year.