April 2 is celebrated globally as World Autism Awareness Day. The aim is to draw attention to the need of improving the quality of life of autistic individuals so they can lead meaningful lives. This is because the differently-abled people are usually ignored, more so when these differences are neurological and hence invisible. Discrimination, stigmatisation, and lack of understanding means there is no space for those on the spectrum, including access to proper diagnosis and therapies that may help them enjoy equal opportunities as neurotypical persons do.
What is autism?
The UN describes autism as a lifelong neurological condition that manifests during early childhood, irrespective of gender, race, or socio-economic status. Autism Spectrum refers to a range of characteristics, like inclination to routines, challenges in communication, and particular ways of processing sensory information. The rate of autism is high all around the world and it is only with appropriate support and acceptance of autistic individuals and their families can communities in particular and societies on whole function effectively.
Celebrating autistic individuals’ existence
Maheen Gul Malik, a human rights lawyer and founder of Lahore Autism Centre, works with the belief that this world should be a place where no one has to mask their true self, be bullied, stared at or feel unaccepted.
Unless you are a mother of an autistic child or know someone who is, it’s actually hard to even imagine the various struggles and apprehensions that keep them awake and restless days and nights at stretch. For instance, autistic children, especially if they are non-verbal ones, would not recount their day at school like a neurotypical kid would. And the parent is left wondering whether they were safe and comfortable, whether they learnt something new, whether they were being nurtured in a friendly and loving environment at school – or not.
The structure an autistic individual needs cannot end at school; it has to be carried over at home. Autistic children who spend six hours at school following a visual schedule (a series of pictures to communicate a series of activities or the steps of a specific activity) in a structured environment naturally feel lost at home where the walls are bare or devoid of these cues to assist them. A child coming home then may cry and ‘throw a tantrum’, which in reality is the child’s cry for help. According to Maheen, it cannot be stressed enough that this is the time when the child is emotionally vulnerable, that s/he needs parents the most and they would automatically start performing better once they are emotionally stable.
The second thing is you may not have placed your hand physically on the child’s mouth but by not providing alternative means of communication you are a human rights offender since communication is a basic human right and freedom of expression has a place in our constitution, too. So where is the freedom of expression of a child who is not able to express unless provided with an alternative communication device or an iPad or simply picture cards to convey their ideas?
Let’s address the most common myth concerning autistic individuals: they can be cured of or will grow out of autism. As a matter of fact, autism is a neurotype and it is not something that can be ‘treated’ or ‘cured’. It is going to remain a part of a person’s life till they are alive, period. The very reason why autistic individuals prefer being called autistic is it allows people to accept them as they are – different. It allows them to be without having to mask their ‘shortcomings’ to fit in. The very reason why autistic individuals don’t want to be referred to as someone ‘who has autism’ is it informs people that, unlike flu or some other ailment, this cannot be cured.
Instead of trying to cure autistic individuals, one has to try make them independent and functional. As parents and siblings, be proud of them, of all the small milestones they achieve no matter how long it took them to do that, boost their confidence and make sure they feel as wanted as any other neurotypical children. And inform others that your child/sibling is differently abled and would require different accommodation because the more open you are, the more easily the child’s needs to function well would be taken care of.
Treat the autistic people around you as humans. Often, the neurotypicals tend to overlook the fact that an autistic individual is able to hear what they are saying. To talk about them in third person when they are present is not just insulting, it’s also triggering particularly if the autistic person is nonverbal and unable to defend themselves. Avoid making this mistake at all costs.
Also, here’s what you can do if you happen to come across an autistic child or adult at a public place behaving differently than you’d expect from a 10-year-old child or a 20-year-old young adult:
Not stop and stare;
Not call them inappropriate names;
Not ask their parents/family members inconsiderate questions.
If you cannot help, it’s better to keep walking and let them be.