Boxing CPA fights to keep children's autism centre funded

Raj sparring before his fight.

Pradeep Raj Raghu Raja Pillay CPA has scored a big victory in his fight for the early detection of autism in children.

Pradeep Raj Raghu Raja Pillay CPA had never competed in a kickboxing match. However, he knew the sport’s reputation for toughness would be the perfect way to catch people’s attention for a cause he was passionate about – the early detection of autism in children as young as 12 months, when the brain is most plastic and intervention therapies can have the biggest impact.

The father-of-one knew of the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC) at La Trobe University, which was “doing a fantastic job”, but so underfunded its early assessment clinic for young children had been forced to close.

The centre has developed a comprehensive questionnaire for maternal and child health nurses to use for children aged 12, 18 and 24 months. This identifies autism red flags, including inconsistent eye contact and lack of gestures, such as pointing at objects.

“That’s specialist knowledge not all the [child health] nurses have,” Raj explains. “The hardest part in the autism journey is getting a diagnosis, because only when you get a diagnosis will you be able to go for funding, then you can start with your early intervention therapies straight away.”

Raj gained his CPA Australia designation last year and works with news and information company Thomson Reuters, designing corporate tax software. He hatched a plan to raise funds and “tell the world” about the need for early intervention, after seeing many children go undiagnosed. If you don’t catch children on the autism spectrum early, “it’s hard to get them to an independent and functional level later in life”, he says.

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“I’ve seen this time and time again in my friends and extended family. There is a taboo around autism and other developmental disorders in kids, especially in my culture. If there is a problem with your child, we try to conceal it or assume the child will grow out of it, instead of accepting the condition and starting early intervention. I want to change that.”

Raj had been working out at his local Muay Thai boxing gym on and off for about a year, but to take part in a fight, he had to submit to eight weeks of intensive training, diet management and weigh-ins. This included up to three hours of personal training, running, Muay Thai sessions and sparring each day after work. He had to follow a strict sugarless and alcohol-free diet over the summer holidays in the lead-up to a February fight.

Raj took the strict regime, plus bruised ribs from sparring, in his stride. “The cause is what matters, and if I can improve the life of just one child on the spectrum through educating parents, my hard work has paid off,” he says.

He ran talks at his workplace and started social media campaign #PradeepsFight4AutismAwareness. Friends delivered flyers in their neighbourhoods, and Dynamite Muay Thai Fight Gym hosted the event and donated part of the entrance fees on fight day to the cause. The bout received coverage on SBS, radio and in local Melbourne newspapers, which helped Raj surpass his fundraising target of A$5000, raising more than A$6500 to date. While raising awareness for autism was his main aim, Raj also won his very first Muay Thai fight – proving that accountants can pack a punch! 

You can still donate to Raj’s cause.

Olga Tennison Autism centre

The Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre is dedicated to advancing knowledge of the nature and causes of autism. It was launched in 2008 with initial and ongoing funding from Olga Tennison, the wife of late journalist and Melbourne Press Club founder Patrick Tennison. Approximately one in every 100 children born in Australia has autism. The centre’s research found children diagnosed before they turn three demonstrate better cognitive and language outcomes at school, compared to peers who are diagnosed after their third birthday – even if the latter group receives the same amount of intervention.

Autism is associated with conditions such as fragile X syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and developmental delay.

Parents can access the OTARC autism screening questionnaire via the free ASDetect app.

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June 2018
June 2018

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