Autism awareness with art

Nepalis with autism take to art to live their lives to the best of their abilities

Sama Bajracharya, 47, has autism. She loves arts and crafts. All photos: SUMAN NEPALI

Orange, yellow and brown. Sama Bajracharya fills the canvas with colours, her forehead creased in concentration and a smile playing at her lips.

Sama is 47 and has autism, a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people interact with others, communicate, learn, and behave. It took years for Sama’s parents to come in terms with and understand her challenges.

Autism awarness with art
A colourful painting by Sama Bajracharya.

It was not until a teacher identified her difficulties – an inability to follow lessons, recognise letters and play with other students. She often withdrew and remained isolated. Her parents took her to a doctor who diagnosed her with autism. Because not much was known about the condition at the time, her parents held onto the hope that she would be cured.

For 18 years, her mother Ratna Shova Bajracharya took her to traditional healers, dya majus and ayurvedic hospitals. “I did everything that I could, I just wanted to see her live like everyone else happy,” says Ratna Shova.

Autism awarness with art
Sama with her mother Ratna Shova.
Autism awarness with art
Sama with her sister Nima walking towards a bus station.

Upon learning there was no cure from a specialist, Ratna had to adjust their lives to accommodate Sama’s needs. This was not easy as sometimes Sama would exhibit aggressive behaviour including self-harm, throwing objects, breaking mirrors and threatening to jump off the window.

A turning point came in 2005 when Sama met Sarita Dangol during an art event for people with autism. A senior artist, Sarita started mentoring Sama in arts and crafts. Art became a form of therapy for Sama, promoting mental and physical stability.

Read also: The art of healing, Sewa Bhattarai

Seeing the impact arts had on her, Sarita along with Sunila Bajracharya co-founded Mikha - The Creative Begins in 2022 to help empower other individuals like Sama by providing them a platform to explore and grow through art.

Autism awarness with art
Sama likes knitting.
Autism awarness with art
Sama hugs her knitting mentor after her art classes.

Mikha has become a source of joy for Sama, she excitedly attends classes with her classmates Sabha and Ritu both of whom have been diagnosed with down syndrome.

In 2023, Sama participated in the International Disability Dance and Art Festival in Delhi and showcased her artistic and dancing talents, instilling a sense of confidence in her.

Autism awarness with art
Sama with her friends Sabha and Ritu during their art class.

Read also: The mental scars of violence, Sewa Bhattarai

According to the 2021 Census, there are 4,886 individuals with autism in Nepal, out of 647,744 people surveyed. This is 0.8% of the sample population. In 2019, the Autism Care Nepal Society (ACNS estimated) that some 300,000 children were living with autism in Nepal.

There has been a worrying increase in autism among younger Nepalis, partly due to increased awareness and diagnosis of the condition. Management and support systems, however, are sorely lacking.