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Thashmi’s wonderful world

By Fiona Wright and Shilpa Samaratunge
Odel’s latest range of designer goods are an exquisite set. Bold and colourful, expressive and spirited, the shirts, bags and notepads are beautifully designed, and snatch at the attention of the shoppers milling by. In itself, this is unremarkable. But their creator, the chain’s latest fashion designer, is not only just 11 years old, but also a sufferer of autism. And while she seems thrilled to see her works on display, Thashmi is decidedly unimpressed by all the fuss.

At the launch of her fashion range, Thashmi exclaims with delight as her carers show her, her designs, now made into goods. She is a lively and beautiful child, but her condition means that she is easily overwhelmed by the media attention being lavished on her. She is uncomfortable being photographed, and unable to be interviewed. It is through her art that she best expresses herself.

Autism is a developmental disorder, which manifests itself in many different ways, and to different degrees of functionality. Most autistics have difficulty relating to the world and to other people, and find empathy and communication particularly challenging. They are often highly intelligent, and fascinated by patterns, and detail. This means that their experience of the world is often overwhelming, and they are unable to deal with complex social situations. Nonetheless, many of them have incredible abilities in their particular fields- often mathematics, memory, architecture or art.

Thashmi is unable to use words and conversation to express what she has to say. But as her teacher at the Chitra Lane Children’s Resource Centre says, “Why would you want to express yourself verbally, if you have a talent like that.” Thashmi’s teachers are incredibly excited by what she has achieved, and believe the works are so appealing entirely because they are an honest expression of Thashmi’s world and ideas. “She knows exactly what she is doing,” her teacher says, “she showed me one design, of two dark figures and the sun, and I asked her what it was. She said it is love.”

Thashmi’s talent was discovered barely six months ago. After being introduced to computers at her school, and in her home, Thashmi began digital drawing, picking up the skills and techniques with a speed that astonished her teachers. Thashmi’s mother then put about 80 of her designs onto a CD, and showed the teachers just what she had produced. “I nearly fell off my chair!” her teacher exclaims.
It is just this kind of development that the Chitra Lane School aims for in each of its pupils. As special needs children, they are unable to learn from a traditional curriculum; instead, the school seeks to discover the specific talent of each child, and allow it to bloom to its full potential.

Thashmi’s teachers believe that her achievements are unique for someone of her age. She is certainly the youngest designer ever employed by Odel, and in Sri Lanka. Otara Gunewardene, the founder of the chain, believes she is the youngest fashion designer in the world. “We’re all so excited,” her teachers say, “not only for Thashmi. The designs will be so good for her, but they’ll be good for Sri Lanka as well.”

Thashmi’s designs are striking, featuring bold colours, shapes and energetic lines. She is fond of drawing people, especially women, and the details of faces, like eyes and lips. She has an unusual eye for framing, often incorporating uncommon angles and viewpoints into her designs. Her subject matter comes directly from her life, and from the things that she enjoys. Her mother points out, for example, that some of the designs have a strong Hindi influence, as Thashmi loves watching Hindi movies. One design shows the face of a woman with a bindi, and others incorporate Hindi script- even though Thashmi can not read it. Like many autistics, she has a great ability to memorise and imitate such details. She has a photographic memory, in the sense that the Hindi script she uses is a direct imitation of what she sees on television on one specific occasion

The products that feature Thashmi’s designs are beautiful works themselves. Bound fabric notebooks of recycled paper, soft scarves, and slender glasses, these are high quality goods that showcase the graphics to great advantage. They are tactile objects, and Thashmi herself takes great joy in touching them as she walks past. Odel will sell the items over the next month, and the profits from all sales will be channelled into furthering Thashmi’s education. In particular, her teachers plan to buy a new computer, to enable her to continue to develop her art.
It was Gunewardene who decided to develop the designs into the range, after being shown the images by Thashmi’s teachers. She believes the range is something quite unique, and is thrilled that Odel could play a part in developing it. Gunewardene is, however, uncertain if the chain would be willing to do something similar again. “Odel is about fashion,” she says, “and any designers we use have to have a fashion element in their art, if such talent is discovered within those guidelines, we will consider it.”

And this is what is truly remarkable about Thashmi’s designs. They are fashionable, handsome and bold by anyone’s standards, despite her age, inexperience and disability. Her vision is unique, and disarmingly honest, and what she has created for her own expression can be clearly communicated to all.
Still, Thashmi remains unaffected by the excitement her work is generating. Her teachers say she is constantly creating, but just as likely to delete or black out a completed design as save it for future use. But with her energy and creativity, and new computer almost certainly on the way, Thashmi will continue to have a lot of opportunities to speak her mind, in the best and only way that she knows how.

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A rare breed

Autism is a baffling disorder characterised by developmental delays. A person with autism often has problems understanding body language along with spoken and written word. They find social interaction difficult, confusing and even scary. A sign evident in Thashmi, as the attention she was getting caused her to hide behind her mother continuously exclaiming that she was scared. If not for this behaviour, she would have been undistinguishable from other children her age, her disability would have passed unnoticed. Autism is characterised by three distinctive behaviors. A twist to this apparent disability is the ability that Thashmi has acquired along with it.

An ‘Autistic savant’ means a person with autism who has a special skill. ‘Savant’ comes from the French word for ‘knowing’ and means ‘a learned person’. Around 10 per cent of people with autism show special or even remarkable skills. There are many forms of savant abilities. The most common forms involve mathematical calculations, memory feats, artistic abilities, and musical abilities. The answer or tune depending on the ability displays itself to the individual almost without any thought. The ability Thashmi has acquired on a computer is remarkable for any child let alone one who was introduced to the computer only six to eight months ago. Her designs sophisticated and her abstract depictions of life, love and the world in general amazing in a child of only 11. Along with this talent, Thashmi also remembers Hindi text and writes it down from memory after viewing it only once. Hindi, being a language she does not speak or has any exposure to other than based on what she sees on television.

The reason some autistic individuals have savant abilities is not known, as it is clear that not all autistic individuals possess these talents. There are many theories, but there is no evidence to support any of them.

With all this going for her, Thashmi still has only the ability to live a near-normal life. She lives with extraordinary ability and disability, but is living proof that being different or having a disability in the eyes of the world is no reason to sit on the bench or strike out. She may not fully understand it but she does not give up, despite the struggle she faces every day doing what we consider mere routine she has become an ambassador for people living with this and similar disabilities. As they say, a disability is not the end of the world.....only the beginning of a new one.

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