DR RADICA MAHASE
Last week, Brittany, mother of James, a seven-year-old boy diagnosed with autism, went to the supermarket with her son.
James is non-verbal and has issues with social interaction. Most of the time he’s in his own little space and would happily sing along and make certain sounds to get his mother’s attention.
He usually gets stares from people but he is oblivious to them. Brittany is accustomed to people starting and she usually just goes about her business, doing what she has to do.
On this particular occasion however, according to Brittany, “I took James to the same supermarket that we always go to. We went when it was not busy and the people in the supermarket knows us well, they’re accustomed to him so they don’t really bother with us. If I tell them that I need extra help they will always have someone walking with me.
"This time when we went, this older woman, who seems educated given the way she spoke and carried about herself, was standing at the cashier and staring at us. She asked what’s wrong with him but I was just busy trying to hold on to him and cash my items at the same time so I didn’t respond to her. She started to comment about him, saying things like I 'need to learn to control my child in public.'
"I just said ok and focused on what I needed to do so we could get our groceries and leave. Then he started to make his sounds, and she said to me, 'What is wrong with him, is he retarded?'
"That tripped me off and I said to her, 'Tanty, my son is not retarded. He is autistic and you shouldn’t use the word "retarded."'
"She told me, 'If he is retarded you should keep him at home.'
"I was very respectful to her and I told her that he is also a part of society and he deserves to be out as well as anyone else. I told her that autism is more common now and he is not the only child like that and she needs to educate herself.
She continued to steups and grumble and I finished and we left.
"That incident really made me angry but I managed to hold myself together until I reached the car and then I broke down. I started crying – that’s my way of dealing with my anger.
"But this incident really bothered me; it hurt a lot because we are struggling to make things work, we are really having a hard time trying to care for him and then we have to deal with this kind of attitude in public. There are so many awareness campaigns every year that I thought people were changing.
"I would really like that there is simple basic acceptance. The same way the people in the supermarket don’t have an issue with my son making any noises, I want that from everyone. I just want for society to accept that we have people with disabilities and just have patience and understanding.”
Too often we hear parents/caregivers complaining of the same thing – that people call their children retarded and other names when they are out in public. Many parents/caregivers of children with special needs are accustomed to the stares and ignore them for the most part.
But the name-calling and telling parents to keep their children at home are a bit too much. When it is children staring and commenting we tend to excuse it by saying that their parents didn’t teach them better, or they didn’t learn in school that that kind of behaviour is rude.
But when there are adults staring and asking if a child is retarded, this says something about the society that we live in. It says that people in general do not have respect for others, that general decency is lacking and that common courtesy is not so common.
In many cases it’s not about people being uneducated, because even the educated ones don’t see anything wrong in telling a mother, "You should keep your retarded child at home." Maybe it’s more about being intrusive, in other words, being fast and out of place? Or is it that we do it because we know that there are no repercussions, other than an angry parent telling you off? Or is it because as a society we do not care or we don’t know how to mind our business?
Dr Radica Mahase is the founder/director of Support Autism T&T