DR RADICA MAHASE
“My son was diagnosed with autism and he has serious sensory issues. He is sensitive to touch so we don’t rush to touch him or hug him, as much as we want to do that. We understand that just touching him can trigger a meltdown.
"We tend to have problems with relatives and other people though, who just can’t seem to understand why we don’t encourage him to hug them or touch them. Too often they tell us how we’re growing him up to be cold and unfriendly and that in TT we are warm people and why can’t they hug him or give him a bounce. Even though we explain about his sensory issues, it’s difficult for them to understand and relate to because he looks ‘normal’, he looks like every other child out there.”
The BBC stated, “A billion people worldwide live with some kind of disability, according to the World Health Organization, and one US survey found that 74 per cent of those with disabilities don’t use a wheelchair or anything else that might visually signal their impairment to the outside world.”
Autism falls within this category. It is considered a hidden disability or an invisible disability – that is, a disability that may not be immediately obvious as they don’t display physical signs. These usually include learning difficulties, mental health as well as mobility, speech, visual or hearing impairments.
Many parents and caregivers of children with autism are accustomed to hearing others tell them, "But your child look normal," and, "But nothing eh wrong with yuh child, why he getting on so?" amongst other things.
This is because autism doesn’t have a specific look – one cannot look at an individual with autism and see specific features. The fact that autism is a hidden/invisible disability presents a different set of challenges for individuals with autism. Society tends to be less open to those with autism and less accommodating of them because ‘they don’t look like something is wrong with them.'
According to one parent, "People would easily recognise that someone with a physical disability, such as someone on a wheelchair for example, might need help. But when you have a child with autism who looks just like every other child out there, people expect that your child will act in the same way as all other children.
"So when my daughter has a meltdown in a mall for example, and because you can’t tell that she has autism, people are quick to stare at her and make comments. I get, ‘Why she getting on so?’, ‘You need to discipline her,’ and sometimes I get from my relatives, ‘Why you letting her rule you?’ or ‘Why you spoiling her?’
"It is in fact, quite the opposite; I am not spoiling her, I am helping her to deal with all her sensory issues, to calm herself down. I give her the attention she needs at that point so that she can feel better.”
When people can see the disability, they tend to have more compassion and empathy (and sometimes outright sympathy) but with a hidden disability society tends to be more judgemental and less empathetic. They expect that a "normal" child will behave in a "normal" manner.
The only way to help individuals with autism and other hidden disabilities is to educate society on the whole. The first point of education and awareness usually comes from the parents/caregivers and siblings. They are the ones who often speak out about their special one, they are the ones to inform their relatives, neighbours, communities on the whole about their child’s special needs.
However, a more formal approach is needed in TT. We should really start that education from pre-school level – teaching children from a very young age to appreciate everyone, help them to understand that everyone is unique and different in whatever way.
Of course, the best way to teach about disabilities, both hidden and visible, is through inclusion. That is why a deliberate attempt at inclusive education is such a valuable thing to any society. When children with different abilities interact from a very young age, they learn to be more empathetic and they grow up to be more accommodating and less judgemental. It is only when this happens that we can truly change society.
The more understanding society is of hidden disabilities, the less judgemental and the more accommodating that society will be of individuals with autism and other hidden disabilities. We desperately need this to happen in TT.
Dr Radica Mahase is the Founder/Director of Support Autism T&T