BRUNEI-MUARA – When Nazirah Muhammad received a call one day from her three-year-old son’s kindergarten teacher, she thought nothing of it. Little did she know, it would become a turning point in her life.

“When I picked up the call, it was Hafiz’s teacher, she told me how he couldn’t stay still like the other children, that he was hyper and was creating disruptions in class,” she recalls.

Having raised only girls before, she assumed it was normal for boys to be “hyper and rowdy” and did not think anything of it.

“They told me that Hafiz showed symptoms of someone who has autism. I wasn’t that familiar with the condition, I didn’t know what it meant, I told them that he was just being a boy, to give him more time.

“In all honesty, I was in denial”.

Hafiz’s mother, Nazirah Muhammad, showing some of his drawings displayed on the fridge in their home. Photo: Hazimul Wa’ie/The Scoop

Coping with the diagnosis

Mohammad Hafiz Hj Mohd Ja’afar was born on 27th April 2005. Weighing a healthy 3kg at birth, Hafiz provided his mother no inkling of what their future had in store: all the adversities he would have to face, or the potential with which he was filled.

Diagnosed with autism when he was just three years old, Hafiz had only been at kindergarten a few months when he was referred to the Child Development Centre, where a number of doctors met with his parents to break the news.

“It was a tough pill to swallow because no parent would want to hear that their child is anything but normal. We felt a sense of grief at the news, but at the end of the day, you have to live with the cards you’ve been dealt,” says Nazirah.

Smiling softly as she recounts the rollercoaster of emotions she went through raising Hafiz, she dotes on the now 13-year-old boy sitting beside her, twiddling his thumbs as he quotes lines from Sponge Bob Squarepants, one of his favorite cartoons.

“Throughout the years, I guess I went through all the emotions that you can think of — happiness, sadness, anger.

There were days when I felt like he was too much to handle, or I just think about the what ifs. ‘What if he was born without autism? What kind of person would he be right now?’

Nazirah says she feels guilt when these thoughts cross her mind; but admits that these are thoughts she often has, especially on day she feels overwhelmed and exhausted.

“On good days, we feel blessed to have Hafiz, to have such a special child that has a very unique point of view on life.

“When things get difficult we have to remind ourselves of what our elders told us when Hafiz was diagnosed — to always be patient, that Allah SWT will not burden his servants with a task that they cannot bear.”

Hafiz, the budding artist

From an early age, Nazirah realized that her son had an affinity towards art. His teachers too shared similar observations.

“Before he was diagnosed, during his brief time in kindergarten, his teacher told us how he couldn’t stay still. But give him a piece of paper and some coloured pencils, he would sit not moving for hours.

“This was no surprise [to us], even when he was just two years old, he already knew how to hold a pencil and he would start drawing on any surface he could find. But we never could imagine the extent of his talent.”

Some of Hafiz’s drawings displayed in his family’s kitchen. Photo: Hazimul Wa’ie/The Scoop

Growing up, Hafiz had a tendency to steal his sister’s coloured pencils and magic markers, and would start drawing images and objects, which although shapeless, had thought behind the design.

Over the years, Hafiz learned to play with different textures in his drawings by using different tools such as magic markers and watercolors, which he used to express his own unique perspective.

“He also doesn’t do any sketches, all of his drawings, each one of them is done in one continuous go… To be honest, we’re still unsure where his inspirations come from.”

Sharifah Adila Surya Malai Hj Abdullah, one of his teachers at the SMARTER autism centre, where he spent most of his afternoons in the past decade, says Hafiz was a hyperactive child when he first came to them.

The teachers had to employ a number of strategies that would calm him down, most of which involved drawing, which they soon saw was not just passing interest for Hafiz.

“He was never shy with his drawings. After each activity he did, he would ask if he could draw on the whiteboard and we would encourage him to do so.

“We saw that it calmed him and made him more focused for the next activity. Within a few months, he was one of our most improved kids.”

Honing entrepreneurship skills

As more people took note of Hafiz’s talent, many encouraged Nazirah to help hone his artistic skills and turn it into a business, to show the world what individuals with autism are capable of.

“It was clear that when Hafiz’s art started to get attention from his teachers and other parents, there was potential to turn his designs into some sort of business, but we didn’t have much money to spare.”

Fortune smiled on them once Hafiz moved to Sayyidina Hassan Secondary School in Sengkurong. He stopped going to the SMARTER centre once it moved its operations to Sungai Hanching because it was too far from his family’s home.

At his new school, Nazirah and Hafiz crossed paths with the mother of another student, who also happened to own a clothing manufacturing company called Wisa Enterprise. She immediately saw the potential in Hafiz’s artwork.

She offered to make more than 30 t-shirts with Hafiz’s designs, which would be sold to the public.

“She encouraged us to try [starting a business]. She told us that there was no harm in trying, that there was a likelihood his designs would take off.”

When the t-shirts debuted during a school event held at the Airport Mall, Nazirah only expected a few sales. But photos of his designs soon went viral, with Nazirah receiving more than 300 orders.

‘My son’s future’

“This business that we just created, I feel like it was borne from the combined efforts of everyone in his life. It’s like a space has just been opened where Hafiz and individuals like him can achieve success.

“I had parents contacting me, who have autistic kids of their own with unique talents, asking whether their children’s talents could be translated into a business. We never expected such a thing would cause a big impact, that it would inspire people. We’re very proud of him.”

With the huge interest his t-shirts have garnered, Hafiz is now working new artwork that can be used for t-shirt designs.

In the meantime, the family is taking it one step at a time, prioritising Hafiz’s comfort and happiness above all else.

“All of the earnings are going into Hafiz’s savings account, and rightfully so. It’s for his future because we’re always worried about it, how he’ll live when we are no longer here.”

She sighs as she recounts stories of how they were unable to bring Hafiz out to family gatherings or crowded places when he was young, because he would become over-stimulated.

These memories strike a nerve with Nazirah, who says she wanted to shelter her son from stigma and unkind remarks over behavior he is unable to control.

It breaks my heart when I overhear grown men and women commenting on his behavior in public, calling him crazy. As his mother, these words pain me.

“Fortunately Hafiz is not aware of the meaning of those words. There are just some people who lack understanding”.

For now, Nazirah wants to take their new t-shirt endeavor as far as they can, hoping it will make people view autism differently.

“Sometimes I still wish that he would wake up one day and be the Hafiz that he was meant to be, but for the most part I just wish him to be happy, to do what he loves and just enjoy the life that he has.”