Shifa' Azman

"I want to create stories to raise awareness about invisible struggles"

What do you mean this isn't normal?

Shifa' is an articulate and intelligent student who has completed the Foundation Year at LASALLE as one of the 2017 recipients of the Dare to Dream scholarship and has moved on to a specialism in Animation. But she was not always this articulate and had to withstand being isolated by schoolmates who were not aware that she had Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) albeit at the high functioning end of the spectrum.

Shifa' often felt overwhelmed in social situations when she could not understand what others really meant. She felt that she was regarded as being "weird" and still feels this way, the difference now is that she knows her "weird-ness" is not deemed as being intrinsically bad.

Shifa' summed autism up in one question that she frequently asked: "What do you mean this isn't normal?" Her actions, like flapping her arms, crying easily, spinning around in circles which she was perfectly comfortable with, were considered strange to others. On the other hand, she felt that what other people did was strange to her. She wondered why some people smiled when they were actually angry and if she was supposed to hide her feelings, why could she not do it like others?

Improved self-esteem with therapy

The first time Shifa' learnt about autism was when she was reading up about neurological conditions. She was really happy to discover that there were others like her, and that there was a name to her condition. She wanted to be officially diagnosed so that she could receive help but faced familial opposition that official labelling could attract even more negative consequences.

It was not until Shifa' was in Secondary 4, when her emotional control became even more lacking than before, that she was officially diagnosed. She received therapy and that helped her significantly in navigating her social world. Other than teaching her how to make smart guesses, her therapist taught her that there was really no such thing as being "normal", and that made her feel better about herself and the world in general. In her late teens, she learnt to live with autism, appreciated her sensitivity and was better able to communicate with others. She became a happier person.

Making social change through art

As a child, Shifa' most enjoyed seeking out knowledge and would comb the libraries and surf the internet whenever there was something that she could not understand. She would use the information she found to write stories and start drawing to depict how she felt and how she perceived others felt about her. Imagining what was going through the minds of her characters helped her to understand others. Gradually, she became less afraid of people around her.

After secondary school, she decided to pursue a diploma programme in social enterprise. This was in line with her love to acquire knowledge so that she could put that to use in helping others be impactful in making social change. While happy with the programme, her lecturers and friends noticed her love for art and encouraged her to make the bold step to pursue this. Shifa' hopes to make a career out of both her loves: a career that involves creating media based on well-grounded research. This is a carry-on from her desire in secondary school to better understand her schoolmates where characters in her stories had their personality traits. Writing about them had forced her to be a bit braver - she had to observe them more objectively and try to talk to them more to understand them in order to write about them.

Shifa's message on autism

Shifa' hopes that a more inclusive society will help to integrate persons with autism and other disabilities. Education on disabilities should stop segregating people as being with or without disabilities. She also hopes that there will be more stories that show disabled people integrated in everyday life, rather than as heroes or victims.

"…for those of us with autism and other conditions that affect how we communicate, it helps to observe which social rules you would like to stick to and which ones you feel comfortable to break. Sometimes we make mistakes that we have to apologise for but we must never apologise for being ourselves…and for those of us who don't have such conditions but care about others who do, I hope they know that just because some disabilities are less visible, it does not mean that they should go untreated. While we acknowledge people with disabilities, even though our brains work differently, we are the same. I think if we focused more on how human we all are instead of what makes "us" supposedly better than "them", this world would be a much better place to be in".

November 2018



Creativity in word and in art

Shi'fa combines her love for poetry writing with her fascination for anime art.


When God created the first man,
The angels asked Him why,
For everyone knew man's nature
Was a destructive one.

And God replied,
"I know that which you do not."

I am a descendant of man.
As I walk among my kind
We dare not speak
Or face each other
But like atoms
We collide

We hear of people on the
Messages relayed
That they'll skin us
Raw. Hide.

God, can I ask
Of the Flaw of humankind?
Is it greed, or
Fear, or
The way we lose our minds?

Shifa' Azman


I forget my heroes are vulnerable
That they are heroes because,
In their weakest state,
There was nothing else they could be
To take back their lives and laws

I forget my enemies are more
Than their glares that bore my eyes
Their hearts still beat
And there's aching truth
Behind their wasted lies

I forget that love is passive hate
And hate is acid love
For the true opposite of
Love and hate
Is to feel nothing at all

When I do remember, I realise
Pain is just a cog in a wheel.
In the grand scheme of life,
We fall.
This I know is real.

Shifa' Azman


Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder, lifelong and present from early childhood, that impairs a child's ability to communicate, interact and form relationships with others. Due to the range of symptoms, the conditions variously referred to as Autism, Aspergers, Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, etc, are grouped as ASD.


Patterns of behaviour

A person with ASD usually demonstrates restrictive, repetitive and fixated behaviours and has limited interests. He (or she) develops specific routines and is uncooperative, even resistant, to change which is viewed as disturbing. He usually does not engage in imaginary or imitative play and lacks the ability to see the big picture. He may have problems with gross motor skills and sensitivities to light, sound and touch.

Social communication and interaction

Common characteristics are a lack of eye contact and facial expression, resistance to physical contact, a lack of or delayed speech or language development and an inability to initiate or hold a conversation or read between the lines. A lack of general social awareness and appropriate behaviour often leads to poor social interaction.

Some children with ASD show signs of lower intelligence and are slow to gain and apply knowledge or skills. Others have normal to high intelligence (some have an exceptional gift in music, math or art) but have challenges communicating and applying their knowledge or adjusting socially and, therefore, their true abilities are often masked.


ASD has no single known cause. Given the complexity of the disorder, and the fact that symptoms and severity vary, there are probably many causes. Both genetics and environment may play a role.

One of the greatest controversies in ASD revolves around a purported link between ASD and certain childhood vaccines, particularly the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. However, despite extensive research, no reliable study has established any link between ASD and the MMR vaccine which should not be avoided otherwise the child is placed in danger of catching or spreading serious diseases that the vaccine is meant to prevent.


There is no known cure for ASD. While there are medicines that can help to alleviate conditions faced by those with ASD, e.g., severe behavioural problems affecting learning, the medicines do not remove the root of the problem.

The goal of treatment is to maximise the child's ability to function by reducing ASD symptoms and supporting development and learning. There is no one-size-fits-all treatment. Early intervention via structured, individualised and intensive programmes is useful to improve behaviour and communication. Options may include:

Behaviour and communication therapies

These programmes address the range of social, language and behavioural difficulties associated with ASD. Some programmes focus on reducing problem behaviours, teaching new skills and hence modifying undesirable behaviours and encouraging desirable ones. Other programmes focus on teaching children how to respond in social situations or how to communicate better with others. Though children do not always outgrow ASD symptoms, they may learn to function well.

Occupational therapies

These programmes include the use of purposeful activities to help children and adults achieve independent living.

Family therapies

Parents and other family members often play a pivotal role in encouraging and teaching ASD children how to play and interact with others thus promoting social interaction skills, managing problem behaviours, and teaching daily living skills and communication.

Useful links