Two pistol-shots at different times on hot summer afternoons across the seas in Los Angeles and he takes off like the wind. ‘Gold’ he brings back home both times. Akbo Manula Jayawardana has not only secured a personal triumph for himself and his family against all odds but he has also brought glory to Sri [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

A special win for Akbo

Winning 2 golds at an international athletic event means a lot to the family of this young lad diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder

Two pistol-shots at different times on hot summer afternoons across the seas in Los Angeles and he takes off like the wind. ‘Gold’ he brings back home both times. Akbo Manula Jayawardana has not only secured a personal triumph for himself and his family against all odds but he has also brought glory to Sri Lanka.

Akbo: The winner

For, he has won not one but two gold medals at the Special Olympics World Games 2015 held in July ‘flagged off’ in Los Angeles by none other than America’s First Lady Michelle Obama, with a special message from President Barack Obama himself being read out at the event.

“Hithuve ne dinai kiyala, try karala kohoma hari win kara,” is Akbo’s explanation, accompanied by the ‘running stance’ as he says that he never imagined that he would win, but tried and won anyhow. Akbo won Gold medals in the 200m and 100m running events and Hettiyadura Fernando also from Sri Lanka a Gold medal in the 400m running event.

It is Akbo who opens the gate and welcomes us to his home at Sirimal Uyana, Ratmalana , on Wednesday evening, before his mother, Amali, can answer the doorbell. Warm and friendly, tall and lanky, Akbo who turns 26 on October 21 shakes our hands vigorously. He is quick to chip in with names and dates, whenever his mother forgets and asks his help during the interview.
There is light banter between mother and son and the close bond is obvious, while the albums bulging with photographs indicate that he is the apple of his father’s eye.

Akbo is special having been diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder, an autism spectrum disorder, considered to be on the ‘high functioning’ end of the spectrum. Those affected have difficulty with social interactions and exhibit restricted interests.

A year into Amali’s and Gamini’s marriage, when Akbo was born, there was happiness. “He loved music and would bang sticks together to make a noise. He would also dance,” says Amali, recalling that there was no indication of something being amiss. His fondness for music made his parents send their 3½-year-old to a Montessori close to their home as it boasted of a percussion band. They were to be deeply disappointed with the handling of little Akbo by the teachers, as on the third day they had separated him from his nanny, leaving him weeping his heart out, finally crying himself to sleep.

La Petit run by a close friend, Bernie Anderson, followed where he was happy, playing with sand outdoors, singing and drawing. By now he had his little sister, Dhilanki but there was not much interaction between brother and sister as Akbo just did not know how to play.

Mother Amali: Happy with her lot

Five-plus, he went in his blue and white uniform to St. Peter’s College, Colombo 4, but he was “down in his studies”, says Amali, re-living the challenging times, with the teachers suggesting that Akbo be checked out medically. “I was in denial,” concedes Amali, going back in time to the day when she “nearly got a heart attack” on hearing that Akbo was missing from class. While she was rushing to school, the teachers had found him hiding, huddled up under a table at the tuck-shop.

Many other strategies they followed but it needed an aunt Sirima Liebman from America, to jolt Amali to the right track, by telling her in no uncertain terms that Akbo was special. A stint in America, first in North Carolina and then New York, came thereafter with one of the best Neurologists, Dr. Caroline Hart, making the diagnosis of Asperger’s disorder and the interventions and therapy starting in earnest. “The year that Akbo attended a special school in New York, with therapy, sports and music has made him what he is today,” says Amali.

Back in Sri Lanka, at Achievers he was able to showcase his musical talents and later came under the positive influence of Special Needs Teacher Rehana Wettasinghe at the school run by the Merrill J. Fernando Charitable Foundation, coming under the Dilmah Tea Trust Fund.

With Akbo wanting to sit the London Ordinary Level examination, Amali brought in Subadra Wijesekara for home tutoring and she guided the young man in the direction of the Special Olympics. Pursuing that line to the fullest, Amali made contact with the Chairperson of the Special Olympics Committee in Sri Lanka, Dr. Nimal Kariyawasam.

It was the right choice and Dr. Kariyawasam sent Akbo to Singapore for leadership training in November last year. Much emotion is tangible when Amali talks of the impact Akbo made as well as gaining confidence in himself amidst delegates from 20 countries and Akbo reminds us that he sang ‘Heal the world’ to a packed audience, while digressing to sing ‘Rosy’ for us, made popular by Rajiv Sebastian, performing the accompaniments as well.

The training for the Special Olympics took off simultaneously with a routine of swimming, badminton and running. The running-training task was undertaken by coach Ranil Tharaka who put Akbo amidst junior and national athletes at the Angampitiya grounds in Kotte. “He studied what the others were doing and did the same,” smiles Tharaka.

Nanga Dhilanki echoes what the family feels……“We are very proud of him. This win has given him a sense of purpose, which is rare for people with special abilities. This is because they usually have no forum and even if they do they have to confine themselves to the expectations of others. In our eyes he has achieved much but the gold medals are the icing on the cake with acceptance from everyone else.”

As Akbo launches into what he would do in the future, “play cricket as a job, like Sange (Kumar Sangakkara) and Sanath (Jayasuriya)”, Amali has set her sights on making him ready for the deep-end – the swimming events — at the Special Olympics of 2017 due to be held in Austria.

Her pride and poignancy are obvious when she harks back to the telephone call by a friend at 3.30 those unforgettable mornings of July 27 and 29. As the friend told her that Akbo was about to begin the races, Amali sent forth the whisper of a prayer and then there was gold in return.

“I’ve never been so happy in my life and blest,” murmurs Amali. God’s grace is what she picks on to explain it as well as unstinting support from relatives and riends as she adds: “I am happy with my lot.”

The Special Olympic Games
The Special Olympic Games had been inaugurated on July 20, 1968 at Soldier Field in Chicago, by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sister of both President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy. While the initial competition had brought 1,000 athletes from 26 US states and Canada, the 2015 Games in Los Angeles, the ‘City of Angels’ drew around 7,000 athletes from 177 countries.

The games had evolved from summer camps that Eunice hosted since 1962 in the backyard of ‘Timberlawn’, her home in Rockville, Maryland, for those with intellectual disabilities, having a sister who had intellectual disabilities, according to the souvenir released for this year’s Games.

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