FEATURE STORY March 4, 2019

Thinking Equal in Laos: Viengsam’s Path as an Autism Advocate

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On International Women’s Day 2019, we are sharing stories of women doing inspiring work across East Asia and Pacific. Whether in the business world, advocacy, media or countless other sectors, their contributions highlight the transformative power of women in the region. Viengsam Indavong quit a successful career in finance and helped start Laos’ Association for Austim.

Tell us about yourself.
My son was born 12 years ago and diagnosed with autism at the age of two.  At that time, there was no information about autism available here in Laos. I tried to find other parents of children with autism, so I could get advice. I managed to find five other parents who shared books and other resources with me. We started our school at first just to have a place for our own kids. Over time, other families heard about what we were doing and wanted to send their children here, but many were unable to pay. This is when we decided to try to set up the center as a nonprofit organization.

What inspires you to get up in the morning? What drives you?

Aside from coffee? Coming to work here gets me up in the morning. Every day is unique and I see an impact every day.  I can look out my office window and see the smiles of our students when they have outdoor sport activities.

There’s always a story unfolding here – it may be hearing from a parent who had a breakthrough with their kid, meeting a parent who needs a shoulder to cry on, discussing future plans with our staff, or dreaming about the future. What kind of vocation will our children have? What does their future hold? I like to dream.

What set you on this path?

I used to work in business and finance, in the private sector. It was exciting; I earned a lot more money. It was a tough decision to end that career. When my son was about five years old, I reached a breaking point. I had just been promoted, was proud of myself, but then was coming home to my child, who was still not toilet trained. I started to feel that these career achievements weren’t really success when I saw my son was struggling. I felt I needed to invest myself more in being a parent, because in this country there is no support for autistic children. I thought that I had something to offer – I can speak English, I have business experience. So I quit my job and started learning more.

I first took my son to Thailand, where there are more resources, to learn about how to better care for him. Once I had this practical expertise, I wanted to learn more – I was lucky to have the opportunity to go to Australia for a Master’s of Disability Policy and Practice, focusing on intellectual disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, mental health and communication difficulty.

What advice do you have for young women who want to take a similar path?

My advice for women who want to start a nonprofit is – just do it. Women are incredibly strong and capable, particularly Lao women, because they have to work harder than men to achieve the same things. Even for those with very successful careers, most have to shoulder all of the responsibilities in the home as well.

And as for my advice for those women who find out their child has autism – accept your child for who they are. It’s tough for parents to admit their child is different. You can cry, you can feel sad, and after you’re done you just need to accept your child.  Know that you’re not alone and find a friend who is going through the same thing. At the end of the day know that your children are only human – they have the same needs and desires as all children.

Do you have a favorite quote or saying?

I have a metaphor that I always come back to. A potato, an egg, and a coffee bean are put into boiling water.  After some time, the potato has gone soft, the egg has gotten hard, and the coffee bean has released an amazing aroma and taste.

The boiling water represents a challenge in life – it can make you soft, make you hard, or you can use it to make something new and wonderful. I want to be the coffee bean and always remember to make something beautiful out of every challenge.

What are the biggest issues in Lao PDR right now and how can they be addressed?

In my own sector, the issue is to make inclusion real. I’ve heard a lot of talk about inclusive education from donors and in government policy, but in practice there’s a big gap between policy and practice. We acknowledge that it’s challenging, but here at our center we’ve already been able to do it, and without any great specialized knowledge. We’re just concerned parents. We just have to believe in our kids and work through the barriers.

Where do you see Lao PDR in 25 years?

I see that there are a lot of opportunities over the next generation, as the young population is growing. The challenge is to make sure this up and coming workforce is qualified enough to bring positive change in the country. For our children here at the center, we hope to see some of our students employed, maybe some as entrepreneurs, or running art galleries. I want to see our organization become sustainable and know that it will have leadership into the future.

What change would you like to see that could bring greater equality in Lao PDR?

When we talk about gender equality in my line of work, the change is that we want to get more males involved! I want to see active fathers and male role models for our kids. When the father is actively involved in their children’s upbringing it benefits women as well as the kids.

If you could use one word to describe women in East Asia Pacific what would it be?

Amazing. I feel like every woman is amazing the way she is, and I admire so many women.

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The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group and its employees.

 



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