Santiago Fraser was dancing energetically with his buddies. He was soon getting on stage, preparing to walk the ramp to showcase Indian designer Rina Dhaka’s creations at Dubai show Fame – standing for fashion, art, music and entertainment – and seemed all excited. Glad to have received an opportunity to rekindle the friendships he had made with some of the people who had performed with him in previous years, Santiago, or Santi as he is affectionately called, was clearly enjoying himself.

[A mother's persistence helped pave a new path for autism in the UAE]

A little away, Varun Raina was busy tuning his guitar. Keen to put on a show that would wow the audience, he excused himself from the interview, promising to speak after the event. A singer and small-time actor, he has cut several music videos and has performed live at many venues in the UAE. But Fame is a bit special for Varun. He has a huge crowd to impress, plus it’s also an occasion to meet up with some of his old friends. And he wants to make the most of it.

Varun says he ‘feels absolutely at home when on stage’
Antonin Kelian Kallouche

Off stage, 14-year-old Twaritha is shaking a leg to the music when not jumping up and down in her seat watching her friends get ready to perform. Too excited to sit down for a chat, she is having the time of her life smiling and even lip-synching to the songs blaring through the speakers.

‘It’s nice to be here,’ she says, grinning from ear to ear.

‘Here’ is the Dubai World Trade Centre hall, venue of Fame – an event conceptualised by Rosy Ahmed, mother of a special needs child, some four years ago to celebrate inclusivity and offer a platform for people with determination to showcase their talents and skills.

‘Fame is an inclusive event for children and young adults with special educational needs to express their talents,’ says Rosy, whose daughter Hana has Down’s Syndrome. ‘It creates an opportunity for a variety of students to come together, learn and grow their confidence, and provides them a safe space for self-expression.

Rosy Ahmed and her daughter Hana
Antonin Kelian Kallouche

‘For me, it was an opportunity to show that we’re all the same and capable no matter what our ability is.’

Now in its fourth year, Fame, says Rosy, has become a success thanks to the interest shown by participants, their parents and well-wishers who look forward to it every year. It also attracts participants from international shores – such as Victoria, who is from the UK and flew down to attend this year’s event.

Even as the crowd is beginning to swell, Santi is busy – talking to friends, adjusting his clothes, checking his profile in the mirror as he prepares to walk down the ramp.

The choreographer who is preparing the participants knows that this is unlike most shows. This one is truly special.

Affected by Down’s Syndrome, Santi was also born with a congenital heart condition, which was treated with surgeries. After completing his initial years of schooling at the Dubai Centre for Special Needs, he is now an employee of Emirates NBD bank in Dubai.

His dream is to become a celebrity and every time he goes up on stage he admits he feels like one. Acknowledging the applause of friends, he says, ‘I have a lot of friends, because I make friends wherever I go.’

One of his acquaintances also performing on stage today is Zia Mirza. The crowd cheers wildly as the 23-year-old dances with abandon, shaking a leg to Bollywood numbers fully coordinated with his partner on stage.

Santi walking the ramp in a Rina Dhaka number
Antonin Kelian Kallouche

So perfect are Zia’s movements that it is hard to tell that he cannot hear the music he is dancing to. Zia, you see, is hearing- and speech-impaired, but that has not stopped him from pursuing his passion for dancing. His cues, explains his mother, come from the beat, which he feels ‘in his heart’.

A self-taught dancer, he picked up steps and tricks after watching stars such as Bollywood actor Hrithik Roshan and American singer Justin Timberlake.

The accountant at Emirates NBD Tanfeeth, Zia communicates by sign language, and from his actions it is clear he is enjoying his time in the spotlight.

Another talented musician who wows the crowds on the Friday evening is Easton Alric Nala Romero.

Easton’s dad Aldrin Romero was not sure how his seven-year-old son, who is autistic and has a very short attention span, would behave on stage when he was invited to play the keyboard at Fame. But to everyone’s surprise, the ‘little Mozart’ not only walked up to the stage with confidence but also played the piece to perfection.

His music teacher who was sitting next to him all through the performance could not contain her joy to see a piece performed to perfection, and was profuse in her encouragement. As for Easton’s parents, they gave him a standing ovation.

Easton’s talent for music was discovered by his parents when he started playing a complex classical melody on the keyboard all by himself.

‘He loves listening to music and plays by memory. He also enjoys singing. His inclination towards music has got us interested too and we have music playing in the house all day.’

Easton’s music taste leans towards contemporary and soft ballads ‘which he enjoys playing on his keyboard’, says Aldrin.

If Easton is a wiz on the keyboard, Varun, who was three years old when he was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorders (PDD) – characterised by delays in the development of socialisation and communication skills and which falls under the autism spectrum – is a talented guitarist.

Today, at 21, thanks to music, he has come a long way from a condition that limits him from social interaction. If one moment he is humming a classic Bollywood number, the next moment he effortlessly breaks into a Bruno Mars hit.

Easton with his music teacher, who was thrilled to see him perform a piece to perfection
Antonin Kelian Kallouche

Appearing confident and comfortable on stage, he says he ‘feels absolutely at home when playing music’.

Pursuing the fourth year of training in Hindustani classical music, this young man also plays the piano.

Currently training for pre-employability skills with different schools and corporates, Varun says ‘I interned at Papa John’s Pizza and had a lot of fun while there. I also like to volunteer at Tender Hearts, a special needs centre.’

When not playing music Varun says he loves to admire nature. ‘I enjoy watching the various trees and the sky ... I love the fresh air outdoors. I also like to read books about the Indian freedom struggle,’ he says.

Music is also the thread that binds Twaritha to many of the performers at the show. Although epileptic and diagnosed with developmental delays at eight months, Twaritha is blessed with a photographic memory that helps her easily memorise songs as part of her Carnatic music training.

Twaritha’s mother Gayatri Shankar is elated to see the joy on her daughter’s face after her musical performance. ‘This is her moment of glory. Twaritha is so happy and excited to be walking the ramp,’ she says.

The talented girl who is undergoing several therapies to help improve her condition, also makes time to swim. ‘She loves swimming so we use water aerobics as therapy for her, which has helped her greatly,’ says Gayathri.

Twaritha also enjoys horse riding and occasionally dabbles with paints with her artist mother.

Although independent in many ways, Twaritha, not unlike many teenagers also throws tantrums and experiences mood swings, says her mother, with a smile. ‘She is keen to learn to dance and wants to play the drums as well,’ says Gayathri.

Quite like Twaritha, Santi too enjoys music. ‘I love it so much that I might consider becoming a professional singer one day,’ says the young man who grew up in Dubai, England and Columbia and loves all three places equally.

He looks forward to going to work in the morning and is happy when he comes back home in the evenings to be with his family. When not listening to music, he enjoys playing sports, especially tennis and surfing, and watching films. ‘Fast and Furious is my favourite movie, I enjoy the action in it,’ he says, with a laugh.

A talented sportsman, Santi bagged a Gold at the Special Olympics held in Abu Dhabi. He is also an active user of social media.

Zia and Twaritha amp up the style stakes, accompanied by a model
Antonin Kelian Kallouche

Zia enjoys watching films and TV, and posts videos of his dance performances on Instagram regularly. He hopes to be noticed by Bollywood star Salman Khan. ‘My dream is to work with him in a film,’ he says. Zia dances every day after work. An avid follower of cricket, he also enjoys playing cricket and basketball.

After work he looks forward to chatting with his family, especially his mother, who he says ‘is my best friend’.

As for Easton, this gifted child has a knack of remembering letters and notes. He started reading when he was just 11 months old and he could also spell three-letter words then. He cannot read books, however, due to his short attention span.

‘Easton is very visual, he understands non-verbal cues better and responds to visual learning and communication,’ Aldrin says.

Easton played the keyboard as part of an inclusive band called New Dawn, which was specially curated for Fame 2019.

The show was more than just music and dance. Apart from several music and dance performances, including a gig by hard rock band Point of View, who finished the event by playing popular numbers that had everyone dancing in the aisles, there was an all-inclusive catwalk for jewellery and clothes.

‘We feel we are lucky to be in a special needs group. As parents of a determined child, we cannot feel tired, we have to be energetic at all times and somehow we find the energy to keep up with the kids,’ says Gayathri.

Clearly, a lot of hard work goes into staging an event of this nature and scale. The preparation for the show begins in late September or October, when the practise starts mainly on weekends. Closer to the event, practise sessions are held on weekdays as well.

‘It’s a lot of hard work for all of us and the children need to put in several hours of practise to stage a perfect show, but it’s like a big party for everybody and we wouldn’t miss it for the world,’ says a parent.

The final show is a culmination of weeks of practice, just like any other live show, sans the stress because all you see is smiling, happy people and an atmosphere of bonhomie.