DR RADICA MAHASE
“IT’S OKAY to be different!” That’s the message that Nikhil’s parents have been sending him for the past ten years. He is 16 years old and has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. He is high-functioning and he looks and acts like most other children his age, but he has certain traits that make him stand out in a crowd.
He has sensitive hearing and dislikes noisy environments; he cannot sit still for long periods of time; he only eats about five different foods due to sensory issues and he’s usually fascinated with light. When Nikhil accompanies his parents to the mall he would stand for hours just looking at the lights in the stores and his parents are accustomed to people staring at their son when he does this.
They are used to people telling them they should make him eat other things. It always amaze his parents how everyone seems to have an opinion of what their son’s life should be like and what he should do, eat etc. When he was younger his parents would try to explain to people but now they simply stand up for him and let people know that their advice and criticisms are not welcomed.
They understand their son’s unique traits, they love him unconditionally and they constantly tell him that it is okay to be different because his differences are what make him special.
Children are different, whether there are children with special needs or whether they are neurotypical (normal) children. Unfortunately, though, we live in a society where children are usually placed in a box and if they deviate from the “accepted social norm” they are seen as different. Most of the time, this difference is perceived as negative.
In Trinidad and Tobago, children grow up being told they need to be like their peers and if they don’t fit in then something is wrong with them. This is especially visible with our education system where academic excellence is expected and glorified. The child who is not academically inclined is seen as a “duncy head.” The child who won’t sit still and do work is seen as “troublesome” or “harden.”
We have a socially-constructed idea of the “model child,” the one who tops the class every term, who attends a prestigious school, gets all CSEC passes and then enters university to become a doctor or lawyer or some other professional. Parents boast of their children who excel academically.
As our education system does not embrace differences, children who excel in other areas such as the visual and performing arts are marginalised. Imagine, then, how difficult it is for a child with special needs, a child who might not perform well academically but might be brilliant at something creative.
In Nikhil’s case, although he does not sit still for long periods this does not mean he cannot learn. He is excellent with the visual arts and his parents believe that he is good with lights and special effects so they encourage him to pursue it even if it means staring at a particular light for a long time.
Neither our education system nor society as a whole is receptive or accommodating of differences. In the ideal situation, Nikhil’s strong points would be encouraged in the classroom in whatever way possible and he would not be subjected to stares when he is out in public.
Unfortunately, society is quick to label children and a teenager staring at a light in the mall as “weird” and “retarded.” People simply do not understand or accept that being different is okay.
If we are to make this country more accepting and accommodating of differences, then we need to start within the homes and schools. It is crucial that we change the education system to facilitate creativity and to promote varying interests and abilities.
It is even more important that we encourage children from as early as pre-school to understand and accept those with special needs, to understand that it is rude to stare, speak about or laugh at others. As basic as these are, they are lacking in our society.
Surely, if we change our attitudes towards those who have different abilities, then there will be a place for them in our society. As the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau said, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
Dr Radica Mahase is the founder/director of Support Autism T&T