Long-limbed and lithe head-turners, all model hopefuls, mill about the rehearsal space of the AC Hotel Kingston for a Saturday morning training. Seated among them is Alexie Marks.
Diagnosed with autism at age two, social interaction for Marks can prove challenging.
However, the now 21-year-old creative is determined to defy the odds and will confidently step out as a contestant alongside his peers in SAINT International’s upcoming Fashion Face of the Caribbean finals set for Sunday, April 23.
“I am definitely not the same person as I was going in,” Marks said of his experience thus far in SAINT’s months-long developmental training.
“It has broadened my way of thinking, even in the little details; I have begun to appreciate how I present myself to the outside world. This is something I was not conscious about before, but it has helped me to be more aware of myself,” he said.
The training sessions have run the gamut from deportment and dance movement to that day’s class on theatrical expressions, led by Pierre Lemaire, former head of the School of Drama at Edna Manley College.
Marks was encouraged by his communications specialist mother Harriett Clarke to attend a model audition in 2019. Marks, somewhat reluctant, eventually acquiesced.
“This was just on a whim, and my mom trying to help me find something that I could do to develop my confidence socially and get out more,” he recounted to Loop News. “When I was shortlisted by SAINT’s Chief Executive Officer Deiwght Peters, I was very anxious, as I was not sure I could meet the expectations of being a model because of my autism, but mom encouraged me along the way and helped to keep my focus.”
He faithfully began attending the workshops and soon discovered he could, in fact, do it.
“I could actually do what was required, like the walks and various movements; trust me it’s not as easy as it looks. It was before the pandemic hit and we had done many sessions before COVID shut everything down, but I was called back last year when Mr Peters restarted training and I picked up right where we left off,” he shared.
Marks explained that, in a social environment, things are not easy for people with autism.
“You can miss cues that everyone is familiar with. I was bullied at school and got into fights just trying to defend myself from the regular class bully who would target me. I would sometimes hide this from my mom who would eventually find out and be upset, and you don’t want to tick off my mom, especially if it has something to do with me,” a good-natured Marks joked.
A graduate of Liberty Academy at Priory, where he attained five CSEC subjects, he divulged that he previously attended Mona High but had to be transferred.
“The bullying there was a lot, so eventually Mom moved me to Liberty where things got better. Principal Garrick was very instrumental in getting me settled and Ms Norma Reid, who my mom hired to shadow me at school and sat with me during classes, was of great assistance in me focusing and studying,” Marks explained.
Jamaica Autism Support Association (JASA) co-founder Gayle Cunningham is delighted with young Marks’ participation in SAINT’s model competition.
As one of the active voices of the advocacy organisation founded by parents and professionals in 2007 to raise awareness about autism locally, Cunningham told Loop News that “it is always wonderful when one of our own succeeds in the way that they wish.
“It’s good to see them find something they enjoy,” she said.
The JASA executive disclosed that, generally, one in 36 children has an autism spectrum disorder.
“This means that 916 of the 33,000 children born in Jamaica each year will have autism. That is three out of every 100 children. Because autism is four times more common in boys, four in every 100 boys and one in every 100 girls born will have an autism spectrum disorder,” Cunningham said.
Marks is now pursuing CAPE subjects Communications Studies and Entrepreneurship at Mico College’s evening classes, with aspirations to become either a writer or documentarian.
He believes that should an international modelling career beckon, “I only hope I can have a positive impact on other persons like me with autism and show that anything is possible with God who will help you navigate your world if you ask him.”
Meanwhile, Marks has taken issue with misinformation and myths many in the public have about autism.
Marks, who loves anime and manga comics and writes the occasional short story in his leisure time, said he is annoyed by the stigma that “we are thought of as odd because we have certain repetitive behaviour when we are overstimulated and that we cannot make it in this world because of our challenges.
“We can learn once we get the right environment and teachers are understanding and willing to accommodate us. A lot depends on the teachers, but those who go out of their way to help us are a real blessing to people like me on the spectrum, more than they could ever imagine.
“We just need the right help from the school system, and we will excel,” Marks said.
Admittedly anxious about SAINT’s model finals around the corner, he noted: “I am excited and a bit nervous for all of us competing as we have all been anticipating this moment. I will be doing everything I learnt, which is all special.”