Matej Hosek, a Czech schoolboy with Asperger syndrom, shows a map that he designed, on January 29, 2018, in his bedroom in the village of Cernosice, Czech Republic. Diagnosed with severe Asperger syndrome, the 13-year-old bespectacled boy has found peace and order in sophisticated maps of his own making. Not only that -- they have also turned him into a fashion designer of sorts. (AFP/Michal Cizek)
The toy cars, double-deckers, stuffed toys and pillows on his bed are meticulously ordered into neat rows, but Matej Hosek still inspects his room with a frown, looking for shortcomings.
He pushes one car back by a millimetre with satisfaction, then opens a folder with dozens of transport maps he has drawn as part of his battle with autism.
Diagnosed with severe Asperger syndrome, the 13-year-old bespectacled boy has found peace and order in sophisticated maps of his own making.
Not only that -- they have also turned him into a fashion designer of sorts.
"I guess this is something God has given him in exchange for what he has taken away from him," says Matej's mother Michaela Hoskova.
Matej was a noisy child, "crying 23 hours a day," she says, recalling their life in a Prague block of flats where neighbours regularly banged on their walls or, worse, left scratches on their cars.
The family, which includes Matej's little sister Sofia, moved to a house in Cernosice, a small town just southwest of Prague, where Matej "could cry as loud as he wished".
Then he discovered maps.
"People used to kick us out of trams because he was yelling all the time. Then one day, on a tram, I gave him a map to read, I don't even know where I got it. And he calmed down," says Hoskova.
Matej started to ask for tram and underground rides to check if the transport maps were correct.
He started to copy maps, including his favourite, the London Underground, which he knows by heart, before drawing his own.
Picking Cardiff off a map of Britain for its cool name, Matej drew an imaginary underground for the Welsh capital. Other cities followed, and the metro plans improved.
"With some cities, he said their system had no logic so he started to re-draw the plans," says Hoskova, a former journalist.
'We need maps'
The family's life began to change as Matej's condition improved -- they started to go on holidays, which was unthinkable when he was small.
"We always go to the information centre first. We need maps," chuckled Hoskova.
Officially diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at age 10, Matej gradually started coming to terms with his condition.
"Children with Asperger syndrome have a problem with verbal communication. When they see things in a picture, they become easier to understand," says Lenka Michalikova, an adviser to autistic people.
"Structure and visualisation serve as an anchor in their uncertainty. They offer predictability, a clue."
Grappling with depression and anxiety since puberty, Matej needs an assistant at school but his results are above-average.
When he moved from fourth grade to fifth and had to go to different classrooms, he struggled -- until he drew a map of the school.
"I must pay good attention to how I'm drawing the maps because I like everything to be precise," he tells AFP, explaining how he measures the maps he copies with a ruler beforehand.
"Every time I look at a map, I calm down. That's what's interesting about me."
On the catwalk
Inspired by a film about the Christian Dior fashion house, Matej once wrapped one of his maps around a mannequin standing in the living room as decoration.
"I'm a big fashion fan, and I said 'Matej, this is not bad at all'," says Hoskova, recalling how proud she was until Matej started to pin the map onto her own body.
Her magazine at the time partnered with Prague Fashion Week and Matej soon found his underground design shown on the catwalk at a Prague department store in autumn 2016.
The clothes were sold and the income went to the AutTalk fund helping children with autism, within a project called Autist for Autists.
T-shirts, underwear, cups
"This is unique, using Matej's work to help other kids with autism," says Katerina Sokolova, Miss Czech Republic 2007 and AutTalk founder.
"His design is universal, you can put it on anything -- T-shirts, underwear, trainers," she told AFP.
Building on the success, the Hoseks have started a small family company selling clothes and other items such as backpacks, cups and mobile phone cases with Matej's underground designs.
"We have registered immense interest from different chains, but right now we're not able to produce the amount of goods they want," says Matej's father Martin, the manager of the Maappi company currently hunting for an investor.
Part of the income will go towards treatment for autistic children, he told AFP, adding that he would like the company to expand abroad one day.
Matej is currently busy drawing maps for the Run Czech company organising public runs in the Czech Republic.
He has also designed a T-shirt for his mum's favourite singer Craig David -- eight metro lines for his eight CDs, with songs in the place of stations.
Maappi is now shipping 10 T-shirts to the English singer after his manager said he had loved the design.
Standing on a rug emblazoned with the British flag, underneath a map of the London Underground and surrounded by toy double-deckers and iconic British red phone boxes, Matej discloses his modest dream.
"I'd love to go to London. To take a ride on the Underground."
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