Thashmi’s wonderful world
By Fiona Wright and Shilpa
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.