Jamila at her desk

Speaking through art

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Diagnosed with autism at the age of four, like many children with her condition, Wan Jamila Wan Shaiful Bahri faced difficulty in verbal communication and social interaction.

But Wan Jamila began communicating with her family by drawing out her feelings.

When she was happy, she would draw a girl, smiling. Usually, it was a girl with tears rolling down her face.

One thing in common about these girls was their long flowing hair.

This is now Wan Jamila’s trademark and apparent in many of her artwork.

Now, at age 15, the teenager is slowly gaining recognition with invitations coming in for her to display her work at art exhibitions.

The fourth of five siblings recently held her first public showcase Independent Arts: Converge & Connect at the TM Convention Centre, Kuala Lumpur, where she sold her first piece of art for RM1,850. It was in A4 size.

She is also the youngest artist to be featured in the Merdeka Live Art Painting Exhibition at 1Utama Shopping Centre, organised by Art Market Malaysia.

The project was held in conjunction with the 60th National Day celebration.

In July, Wan Jamila won the poster drawing weekly competition at the National Art Gallery, which required her to draw on the spot for three hours.

Her win gained her a shot at the finals on Sept 9.

Wan Jamila’s mother, Noorhashimah Mohamed Noordin, said she did not know about autism when her daughter was born.

“It was a very difficult time for me,” she said, adding that she was working as a lecturer at University Technology Mara and running her own architectural firm.

However, early childhood intervention programmes helped Wan Jamila overcome development delays and she attended a primary school that provided a programme to handle special needs children like her.

After school, she would doodle everything that happened in class and her parents deciphered from the drawings what kind of day she had.

This allowed them to better understand her thoughts and emotions.

Through the thousands of doodles produced, many with just her forefinger on an application, which she downloaded onto an iPad, Noorhashimah felt Wan Jamila should be encouraged to draw more as she evidently had talent.

Although Wan Jamila eventually learnt to speak by age 10, she continued to create intricate and detailed art pieces from observations, feelings and experiences.

This included her interpretation of the people she met and events of everyday life: friends, teachers, school trips, holidays and various activities she was involved in such as dancing, swimming, and travelling.

Her love for dancing is expressed on paper in the form of twirling figures of herself and classmates, including dance steps, almost like a guidebook for beginners.

A recent trip to Langkawi’s Kilim Geological Park resulted in tens of pieces of mosaic fishes, her current fascination.

She receives coaching in art, mathematics and science from her mother.

Her parents have also engaged local artist, Khalid Mohd Sapari, to teach Wan Jamila techniques and equipment knowledge to improve her drawing skills.

Khalid visits Wan Jamila at her home in Shah Alam weekly to check on her progress.

These days, when the teenager is not at school, she is at home with brush in hand, painting for hours at a time.

Like any passionate artist, Wan Jamila spends hours working on her art.

Noorhashimah, who is now retired, plans to convert her former office space into an art gallery for Wan Jamila, as her artwork continues to fill their home.

“We don’t deny it is an extremely challenging and painful journey caring for a child with autism, especially when she was younger,” she said.

“However, once we understood that Wan Jamila is a visual thinker, rather than a language-based thinker, we began to adapt to her, and not lead her.

“In fact, she changed the way we think and do things, in a positive way.

“Any parent who is facing a similar situation should study the child and to discover whatever hidden talent he or she holds. Every child is indeed special in his or her own way,” said Noorhashimah.