The global COVID-19 pandemic has not only brought death and illness to some; it has caused much disruption to our daily lives. While we attempt to adjust to the “new normal,” where physical social interaction is in decline, many are struggling to adjust. Perhaps this is the perfect time for reflection while we draw positivity from someone for whom social interaction is challenging.
Isa Kajee is a five-year-old boy from Johannesburg, who similar to his two older brothers shares a passion for motorsport, but who unlike his two brothers isn’t able to compete in any karting events. Despite being of the acceptable age to enter karting competitively, Isa recently took to the kart circuit for the first time before the implementation of South Africa’s national lockdown. Like any other boy of his age, his favourite activities include riding his bicycle, playing with his toy cars and racing on his PlayStation console. But this is perhaps where most similarities end for him because at the age of three, Isa was diagnosed with autism.
“Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a broad range of conditions characterised by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and non-verbal communication. We know that there is not one autism but many subtypes, most influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Because autism is a spectrum disorder, each person with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. How people with autism learn, think and problem-solve can range from highly-skilled to severely-challenged. Some people with ASD may require significant support in their daily lives, while others may need less support and, in some cases, live entirely independently.
Several factors may influence the development of autism, and it is often accompanied by sensory sensitivities and medical issues such as gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, seizures or sleep disorders, as well as mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression and attention issues. Signs of autism usually appear by age 2 or 3. Some associated developmental delays can appear even earlier, and often, it can be diagnosed as early as 18 months. Research shows that early intervention leads to positive outcomes later in life for people with autism.” (https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism)
While Isa is non-verbal and relies on other means of communication, he is very active. Before the restrictions on movement, Isa attended The Talk Shop special needs school in Bryanston where his pre-primary education is focussed around speech, occupational and physiotherapy, including the attendance of music and ball therapy classes. He attended swimming classes at Little Fishes twice weekly and was a regular starter for the Under-6 Wits Junior Football Team, where he attended two practice sessions a week. Along with his brothers, he also attended Castellin Boxing Acamedy where the three siblings received lessons from private instructor Clotide “Junior” Essiane; an international professional fighter from Cameroon.
At present, his racing heroes are animated and include Lightning McQueen, Jackson Storm, Cruz Ramirez and a snail named, Turbo. His other favourite movies might not include cars, but he’s no less enthusiastic about them with the likes of the two Rio animated films, as well as Finding Nemo and its sequel, Finding Dory. Interestingly, the latter two’s main characters also have underlying issues hampering them.
Brothers, Aadam and Moosa are more than just supportive of their younger brother’s needs; they also celebrate Isa’s passion when they compete, with Aadam competing under the number 27, Isa’s December birthday. During his younger karting years, Moosa sported a Lightning McQueen-liveried helmet in honour of one of Isa’s favourite animated heroes.
While Isa’s bold step to climb into a kart for the first time was met with a few challenges, including adjusting to the noise of the 50cc engine and learning to operate the Bambino kart’s brake and accelerator, his father, Imraan, proudly boasts that it took a mere 45 minutes before Isa turned out his first lap of the Zwartkops Kart Circuit. The entire Parolin Racing South Africa team who were on hand the entire time to assist, cheered Isa on when he passed the start/finish line, wearing eldest brother, Moosa’s helmet, something he insisted on before suiting up.
While Isa’s visit to the track is not unique, it has, however, inspired Parolin Racing South Africa to establish another karting academy, following the announcement of a Parolin Racing Driver’s Development Academy earlier this year. The second academy will be known as the Special Needs Motorsport Academy and will be a joint venture with a major international brand that is still to be officially announced.
“We are in discussions about a special needs series in motorsport that will include international partners. In this series, all the children will receive a participation trophy, with no winners or losers. It doesn’t matter if the child completes a single lap or just sits in his/her kart. Each participant will be acknowledged and receive an award. The safety of every child is of the utmost importance and thus Parolin Racing South Africa will be arranging for qualified special needs therapists to assist the children and their individual needs due to their various types of conditions. In the end we want to see this grow into more than just a motorsport academy. We’d like to promote children with special needs in all sport, not necessarily only in motorsport,” stated Shehnaaz Kajee, Isa’s mother and the visionary behind this project.
“All Isa’s activities are an instrumental part of his mental development aimed at helping him manage his condition. Each autistic child has his/her unique challenges that can include having to deal with loud noises and bright lights. Unfortunately, society often pushes autistic children away due to ignorance mostly, but these children have lots to offer as well. Every parent with a special needs child knows the challenges that come with the responsibility. We at Parolin Racing South Africa would like to show that they too can enjoy what we enjoy and that in sport, they can be accommodated. There is nothing more rewarding than to see the joy in the eyes of these children,” said Raymond Cornwell, Public Relations Officer for Parolin Racing South Africa.
While Isa won’t be racing competitively at this stage, he will enjoy frequent visits to the kart track when he feels comfortable to do so.
For more on Autism Awareness and Autism in Sport, please visit the following websites:
Published by: Raymond Cornwell
Picture Caption: Isa Kajee was diagnosed with Autism at age 3.
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