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1 NEWS Community: Meet the Auckland mum encouraging acceptance of autism with t-shirt designs

An Auckland mum has started designing t-shirts to put an end to the judgment her autistic son endured in public.

Gaylene Chambers started autism awareness clothing line Chambers & Co for her autistic son Rikki last year. Source: 1 NEWS

When Gaylene Chambers' autistic son Rikki started getting older she found it more difficult for them to go out in public.

"A couple of years ago Rikki got really excited in a Christmas heirloom shop at a local plaza, and got so excited he decided to strip naked and then he was squatting as if he wanted to go poos," Gaylene Chambers told 1 NEWS.

"The very posh lady that was selling all of the Christmas things was horrified and didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t know what to do, so we quickly did a runner, and he got changed and he was fine.

"He didn't need to go to the toilet, but that's called over-stimulation, they get so excited, they don’t know what to do so they strip naked - sensory experience."

She said often, people don’t ask how they can help, they back away, stare, and tell her to smack him, even asking if she should give Rikki medication.

"People are really judgemental about autism and they really like to snigger and comment, but they've absolutely got no clue at all because it is an invisible disability."

Autism spectrum disorder is a disability that affects one in 68 New Zealanders.

It is a lifelong developmental disability affecting social and communication skills.

People with the disability can also have accompanying learning disabilities, but whatever the general level of intelligence, everyone with the condition shares a difficulty in making sense of the world.

"There's a reason they do what they do, they're not being naughty, they're actually trying to cope with the world, and they do it in a different way to what you and I would do to process and cope with the surroundings that they’re in," said Ms Chambers.

So, she started designing t-shirts for Rikki to wear that would make people aware of his disability.

Then in August last year the Chambers lost a family member, Gaylene's father-in-law, and as part of his legacy they decided to start Chambers & Co, a clothing label selling t-shirts and jumpers that encourage the acceptance of autism.

"We want to drive the message of acceptance, inclusion and awareness for autism, once we've got that and spread that message globally, then we want to sell t-shirts."

Phrases like 'Keep calm I’m autistic', 'Autism isn't contagious, but a smile is', and 'Autism is my superpower' drive home the message of empowerment and acceptance.

Since launching this year, she's had a great response from families not dissimilar to her own.

Chambers & Co t-shirts. Source: Supplied

"They've all said, now that can go out in the community and feel completely at ease in their t-shirt and not have to worry."

She said people have been using the t-shirts for fundraising events, or mufti days supporting the autism cause, others for their child to wear for their first time on a plane.

Ms Chambers is currently working on making her clothing line diverse after receiving feedback from a member of the public.

The parent preferred the word, Takiwātanga – the Māori word for autism - which is a derivative of the phrase, "tōku/tōna anō takiwā" translating to "my/his/her own time and space". 

After six weeks of back-and-forth, designing the t-shirt and getting feedback from other members of the Māori community, Ms Chambers finished a new design she hopes will be available soon.

"Everyone has their own culture, everyone has their own way of expressing autism and moving forward I think it will be really positive," she said.

For each t-shirt or jumper bought $1 is donated to Autism New Zealand or the Children's Autism Foundation.