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Q&A with Randa Habelrih, Autism MATES

mother & son standing hugging

Q&A with Randa Habelrih, Autism MATES

This month we chat to Randa Habelrih, Founding Director of Autism MATES, autism advocate and mum of Richard Habelrih. We chat about their recent launch of Timmy The Turtle, a story written by Richard, a young man on the autism spectrum who transforms his experiences growing up with constant bullying into a story that inspires friendship and inclusion.

Tell our readers about Autism MATES

Autism MATES works towards educating the community about autism and advocates for greater inclusion and acceptance in schools and in the workforce. It’s also about flipping from a victim mindset to one of empowerment.

MATES is an acronym for Mates Assisting to Engage Socially because no matter when someone is on the autism spectrum, socialisation is often one of the biggest challenges.

All our work centres around the empowerment of young people on the autism spectrum. We focus on developing their strengths and skills so they can advocate for themselves and their peers.

For more information check out our website www.AutismMATES.org.au

How did Autism MATES start?

Autism MATES was established in response to the exclusion and bullying that our son Richard experienced at school from a young age all the way through to high school (and unfortunately still continues post school due to limited opportunities). We believe that exclusion is not always intentional but instead due to a lack of education and appropriate tools to engage with the autistic community.

As an organisation, Autism MATES is very much spearheaded by Richard who is now 24; he guides our goals, projects and events. We very much follow the mantra of ‘nothing about us without us’. Richard is the public face of Autism MATES and he promotes and encourages self-advocacy, which is something we encourage from all our participants.

What are the MATES programmes and what do they focus on?

We do this by running a number of events and initiatives which include:

  1. Autism MATES Speakers Conference – All presenters & artists are autistic. We provide a platform to develop & showcase their skills. Our participants learn to present & advocate for themselves on stage. They’re trained in public speaking, presenting and being interviewed. This also serves to educate the community & presents the humanity behind the diagnosis.
  2. Model MATES – a fashion-industry event featuring and celebrating young people with autism; they’re professionally styled and they walk alongside professional models to show case the season’s latest trends. They learn to walk tall on the catwalk, their heads held high and they experience the rush of performing in front of a cheering audience. The skills & confidence they learn are transformative.
  3. School MATES – a high-school/peer-led, leadership & inclusion program. It’s a guided leadership program that re-sets the standards of inclusion in schools and removes the onus from the teachers and on to the student co-hort.
  4. Best MATES – a puppet show for primary schools with a powerful anti-bullying and inclusion message. Written and performed by Richard, a young autistic man whose aim it is to educate students and reduce the incidence of bullying in schools. He also created his own employment pathway when the traditional route of employment was not open to him.
  5. Timmy the Turtle animation; an evolution of the Best MATES Puppet Show which was triggered when live performances were limited due to Covid-19. Timmy the Turtle is a digital version of the puppet show and more.
  • The story was originally written by Richard, a young man on the spectrum
  • The voiceover artists are young people on the spectrum who were employed at award actor rates
  • The animation is targeted at primary school students with a goal of promoting inclusion in schools
  • Comes with a workbook to reinforce the themes presented in the animation
  1. Autism MATES Closed Facebook group – online parent/carer support & advocacy group

Timmy the Turtle was recently announced, tell our readers about Timmy!

Written by Richard Habelrih, a young man on the autism spectrum, the video animation was originally performed as a puppet show in primary schools. After Covid-19 struck, Timmy was launched as a digital download for primary schools together with a workbook, complete with lessons.

Richard gives the characters an authentic voice as the interactions and storyline were inspired by his own experiences of bullying during his school journey.

The story was created to promote a message of inclusion and acceptance to a young student audience. The characters Timmy the Turtle and Danny the Duck share with students their story of friendship and inclusion, following some unfortunate yet all too common bullying incidents.

The animation serves 2 purposes:

  1. It delivers a powerful and much needed message to a young student audience.
  2. It provides employment opportunities to young people who would otherwise be unemployed. The aim is to create a social enterprise where they will collaborate and create sequels. It is very exciting to see this evolve.

The workbook has been written by clinical psychologist, Emily Hanlon, who specialises in child development and autism (she is also Richard’s sister) and contains lessons around the themes of:

  • Kindness
  • Inclusion
  • Acceptance of diversity
  • Anti-bullying
  • By-stander behaviour

Timmy the Turtle not only spreads a message of kindness and inclusion, but it presents a positive and proactive way to spark the conversation and change attitudes before the problem manifests. It uses a fun and storytelling way to tackle the very serious and real problem of bullying and exclusion

The production itself has been empowering as it’s a collaboration of young autistic people who were employed to contribute their talents to help bring Timmy and his friends to life. (All the voice over actors and many of the illustrators are on the autism spectrum)

How can readers get Timmy into their school?

Book an online viewing of the video and workbook.

To find out more and view the video, contact Randa from Autism MATES, please send an email to [email protected]

More information about the animation can be found at  https://timmy.autismmates.org.au/

The prevalence of bullying in Australia is a national crisis. The majority of Australian students have been bullied and one in five of these are bullied at least weekly. With mental well-being and mental health being the top challenges facing young people, and with every student having a right to a safe and supportive school experience, the research highlights the extent of this national shame”- Ashley Fell, Social Researcher.