WHEN AUTISM WORKS: A mother’s journey to acceptance

By: Cris Evert Lato-Ruffolo May 23,2018 - 09:23 PM

Kalvin was two years and four months old when a developmental pediatrician diagnosed him with autism.

“I was told by the pedia that Kalvin was the 20th patient that she saw that day,” recalled the boy’s mother, Maria Carlina “Babylin” Roa, a licensed civil engineer.

As soon as the doctor broke the sad news, Babylin said Rain Man, the 1988 Academy Award winning film which starred Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, immediately came to mind.

In the movie, Hoffman was Raymond Babbitt, an autistic savant gifted with an extraordinary memory.

Babbit’s younger brother Charlie , played by Cruise, was a car dealer who looked for ways to recover for himself part of the $3 million estate that their father left to the mental institution where Raymond lived.

“Hoffman’s character was savant but he was not functional at all. The movie showed how difficult it was to manage a person with autism… the tantrums, the patience required to live with someone with autism,” she recalled of the movie upon hearing that her son also had autism.

Babylin then told her husband, Jerry.

“I cried. I cried a lot. I talked to Jerry and he told me, ‘You know, that’s what it is.’”, she said.

“I was also told by an OT (occupational therapist) to not focus on the diagnosis. What is important is that we are doing something about it,” she added in a talk with Cebu Daily News.

Babylin had to accept that as a child with autism, Kalvin would not understand what she would tell him nor would he respond to her when called by his name.

He was also hyperactive and had difficulty imitating words.

Babylin was advised to continue to bring Kalvin to an OT and to hire a speech therapist.

She doubled Kalvin’s time with his OT and made sure that he spent more productive hours with his therapists.

Kalvin needed to develop his social and communication skills and more time by himself was not good.

To help her son’s condition, Babylin did everything a mother could do.

She made Kalvin follow a gluten-free, casein-free diet, which was reported by some parents to bring about positive behavioral changes in children with autism including having less tantrums.

This meant that all foods containing gluten (found in wheat, barley and rye) and casein (found in milk and dairy products) had to be removed from Kalvin’s daily food intake.

Kalvin also took supplements and underwent several tests.

“I was observing Kalvin and I noticed that there was no change at all. I did not realize then that autism is a spectrum disorder and that each child develops differently,” she said.

New home

Later, Babylin’s indomitable spirit would lead her to a country where she thought Kalvin would get the best care for his special needs: New Zealand, described by her friends as beautiful, peaceful, laidback and family-oriented.

She was introduced to a family friend who lived there with a teenage child who had autism.

Babylin learned that therapy and supplements were free in New Zealand.

Having lived and worked in the United States years before, Babylin knew that a certain percentage of the workforce in first world countries was dedicated to minorities.

“I felt that Kalvin will always have a place in any first world country like New Zealand. I was so bent on the idea of him being included in a society where he can be functional,” said Babylin.

Along with some friends, the Roa family — Daddy Jerry, Mommy Babylin, Jaiun and Kalvin — applied as immigrants to New Zealand with Jerry leaving behind a successful 20-year career in a multinational company.

The Roas left the Philippines in late 2002 to start a new life in a foreign land with big hopes of providing a better environment for Kalvin.

“I became so focused on the future that I forgot to focus on the now,” Babylin said thoughtfully.

Support system

In hindsight,Babylin said that their move to New Zealand could be considered as the time when she realized that there was indeed no place like home.

“I was not prepared for all the challenges I had to go through without a support system,” Babylin said recalling that she and Jerry both had to work in New Zealand and attend to household chores which kept them busy.

“I had a lot of expectations. I thought that Kalvin will be healed there,” she said.

But instead, even her time spent with Kalvin during his therapy sessions was not productive because her attention was always divided.

The realities experienced by Babylin in a foreign land made her realize that in order to take care of Kalvin, she also needed to take care of herself.

“One of the therapists in New Zealand told me that I cannot give to Kalvin what I do not have,” she said.

Two years after leaving the Philippines for New Zealand, the family again packed their bags to return to the country in 2005.


When people asked why they left the privileges of a first-world nation to come back to the Philippines, Babylin would say that the Philippines — Cebu, in particular — was home.

But she does not regret the years spent in New Zealand.

“It gave me the confidence to deal with Kalvin, and whatever comes my way. I am not afraid anymore because I know I can do it,” she said.

First and foremost, she said she needed to accept that her son was a person with autism who will not be “cured”.

“I thought I had acceptance already because I would talk with no shame about my son having autism,” she said.

Back in Cebu, Babylin took up teaching and special education units landing 9th place in the April 2009 Licensure Exam for Teachers.

She is also a licensed counselor.

In 2010, she set up Kite Strings Developmental Center Inc. with her friend, Sandra Copingco to improve the quality of life of children with developmental disorders such as autism.

The center also supports families through a comprehensive program to help children with special needs to maximize their potentials.

Babylin and Sandra are co-program managers of AutiSM Works Cebu.

Full circle

One Thursday morning, Babylin watched Kalvin as he greeted shoppers who entered the SM Hypermarket in J Centre Mall.

Babylin, who shares the same warm smile and amiable personality as Kalvin, was a vision of pride: a mother clearly happy about her son finding his own place in the big world.

Kalvin now works in a supermarket under the AutiSM Works program of SM Markets and Autism Society of the Philippines (ASP).

The immersion program, initiated by ASP president Mona Veluz, was designed to nurture a culture of workplace inclusion by giving persons with autism opportunities to be productive as they experience working in a grocery store environment.

It also allows the SM Markets’ operations team hands-on experience in managing a neuro-diverse workforce.

“I am grateful to Miss Mona, ASP and SM for this program which helps PWAs make a stand in the community. That they can work and be part of a workforce,” said Babylin.

There are 61 PWAs (persons with autism) who are employed in 17 SM markets nationwide. Four of them are in Cebu including Kalvin.

Kalvin’s tasks include bagging grocery items, arranging displays, returning stray items and cleaning check-out counters.

“Kalvin develops in his own time. Seeing him happy doing what he does now makes me happy,” she said.

“Everything I hoped for… the acceptance, the inclusion is happening right now, right here — at home,” added Babylin.

For this mother, her journey to embrace autism has gone full circle.

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TAGS: A, acceptance, autism, journey, mothers, to, when, works

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