DR RADICA MAHASE
THE theme for World Autism Awareness Day 2020 is The Transition to Adulthood. This is most appropriate for us here in TT as much of the discourse on autism tend to centre on children. However, children grow up to become adults and sadly there has been almost no focus on adults with autism in TT. This is the story of one special woman, her experiences and her desire to live a more independent and fulfilling life.
My name is Shahira and I am 25 years old. I am from south Trinidad. I was diagnosed with Asperger's (part of the autism spectrum) when I was 16 years old. I attended both primary and secondary school. I have some good memories of school such as when I participated in a pageant to showcase the national costumes of Latin American countries. I was Miss Paraguay. Each class had one representative and I chose to participate because I was pretty good at Spanish.
Sadly, I was often misunderstood and seen as different so on numerous occasions I was verbally bullied and ridiculed. Bullying began affecting me to the point where my academic performance dropped drastically. Eventually, I became afraid to attend school so I dropped out for one term. When I returned to school nothing changed. My peers were unaware of my diagnosis and they were never sensitised about autism. Every time I got a meltdown the students thought that I wanted attention. Some harassed me on purpose so they could have a good laugh. On some days when I had meltdowns my grandfather had to take me home. I could not wait to finish secondary school but despite everything I endured I still ended up with sufficient subjects.
The biggest challenges I have faced so far as an adult are access to transport and getting a job. Also, sometimes people misinterpret things I say and I have difficulty filtering out my thoughts. My communication skills have developed over time though.
Most of the time people tend to react normal to me. However, some people believe that I cannot think for myself because I have Asperger’s. In the past, there were times when people would stare at me and said I am spoil or mad or seeking attention when I had meltdowns. This doesn’t happen any more because they don’t really see me getting meltdowns. As I get older and more mature, my meltdowns became less frequent as I have better control since I recognise my triggers now.
I want to educate myself further and I want to become more independent. I would like a job in the media; behind the cameras or to the front where I can interview people, report and write stories or perhaps anchor news. Someone should hire me because I am intelligent, honest, reliable, passionate and straightforward with a strong desire for justice and equality. I enjoy sharing my knowledge with others and I am a quick learner. I'm also loving and generous with strong will-power and determination.
Autistics have specific interests and whatever they are interested in they tend to channel all their energies into the desired field and thereby excel at it. Autistics are very honest and detail-oriented. Also, I have excellent observational skills and long-term memory and I can focus deeply on what I am doing.
I want to see positive changes for those with autism in TT. There is a need for more qualified paediatricians trained to diagnose autism in children. The cost of therapy needs to be more affordable for autistics and people with other special needs. Schools need to have more qualified special education teachers to aid autistics when necessary because many teachers are not trained to deal with children who have special needs. Public schools should start being more autism-friendly by accepting autistics in the school systems and start treating them with the respect they deserve.
There is also the need for special schools with specially-trained teachers so that autistic children can learn and perform to the best of their ability. Additionally, people need to stop staring and making comments when they see autistic people behaving differently from what society deems as normal. Autistic people needs to be accepted, included, respected and integrated into society and given equal opportunities to transport, education and employment and even to do volunteering without being turned away. Adult autistics need to be employed in TT.
You can follow Shahira on Facebook and Instagram @autistically.blessed
Dr Radica Mahase is the founder/director, Support Autism T&T