DR RADICA MAHASE
Last Friday, April 2, TT joined the rest of the world to celebrate World Autism Awareness Day. In 2007 when the resolution was passed designating this day, the UN General Assembly encouraged member states "to take measures to raise awareness throughout society, including at the family level, regarding children with autism.” The UN noted that “the stigmatisation and discrimination associated with neurological differences remain substantial obstacles to diagnosis and therapies.”
We have so many cases where children in TT were not diagnosed early because of false beliefs and ideas that are prevalent in our society, such as:
The child looks "normal," so therefore nothing is wrong with him/her – autism is often referred to an invisible disability because there are no general distinguishing marks such as physical challenges, facial features etc. Autism doesn’t have a specific look. No one can ever "look" autistic. Hence, since the person looks "normal," many people have a hard time understanding that the differences are in the person’s mental development and communication and social skills.
Individuals with autism cannot empathise – while some people on the autism spectrum may not show their emotions or express themselves in ways that neurotypical people do, this does not mean that they cannot relate to others. People with autism experience the same emotions to the varying levels as anyone else but they may not express them.
You cannot communicate with individuals with autism who are non-verbal – this is so far from the truth! You will be amazed at how some parents and caregivers communicate very well with their children who are non-verbal. They can understand every gesture and hand movement that their children make. Individuals with autism can also communicate through drawings, signs and images and through the use of assistive technology.
Meltdowns are just temper tantrums – If you are a stranger looking in from the outside, you might think that an individual with autism who is having a meltdown is just throwing a tantrum.
However, this is not true. A meltdown occurs when the individual becomes completely overwhelmed by their current situation and temporarily loses control of his/her behaviour. An individual with autism having a meltdown is experiencing sensory overloads, that is, they are being bombarded with too many sounds, lights, etc. In a tantrum the person can still control his/her behaviour.
An individual with autism cannot learn – Every single individual has the potential to learn in some form at whatever level. If we think about autism as simply a different ability and we teach those with autism in an engaging manner they will learn at their own pace. The problem is not that they cannot learn but it is in fact the non-engaging, tedious manner in which they are taught.
Boys talk later than girls so there is no need to worry if your boy child is not reaching speech milestones – Recent studies (Seyda Özçalskan and Susan Goldin-Meadow, 2010) have shown that if boys lag behind in speech development, as compared to girls, it is only be a couple of months. Therefore, if your boy child is not reaching speech milestones, parents should not think that this is normal, no matter what relatives, friends, neighbours and society tell you. It could very well be that your child requires some kind of speech intervention.
Individuals with autism will always be the way they are – While autism is a lifelong condition, individuals with autism can develop intellectually and learn communication and social skills at their own pace, once they are given the correct tools such as education and therapy.
People with autism, especially those who are non-verbal, cannot understand you – If a person is non-verbal that doesn’t mean that the person cannot understand, have feelings, etc. Everyone has feelings including individuals with autism. In fact, people on the spectrum are often very sensitive to what is being said to them, the tone in which it is said, the stares, etc. Like everyone else, they need to be treated with common courtesy, understanding and respect.
Understanding the myths and stereotypes associated with autism goes a long way in providing the care and opportunities that will help persons with autism to lead full and meaningful lives. As former UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said, “This is not a far-off dream; it is a reality that can be attained by promoting positive perceptions about autism, as well as a greater social understanding of this growing challenge.”
Dr Radica Mahase is the founder/director of Support Autism T&T