I believe that is is going to be a very important post. As everyone should already be aware of (but many won’t because well, we are ignorant as a society), April is ‘National Autism Awareness Month’. The major goal behind having this is to promote autism awareness and increase its acceptance in our society. In an attempt to do the same, I would try and explain what autism is. First, it’s officially referred to as ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder’ which represents that it is a condition ( yes, I have issues with the word ‘disorder’) which has various manifestations. Hence, the word spectrum has been employed here. It is characterized by certain developmental delays and deficits in skills such as social interaction, emotional reciprocity and communication. Not going too much into the symptamotology, we’d instead try to understand what happens when someone has autism. Having it’s basis in neuro-biology (basically the brain and its parts), it makes it difficult for an autistic individual to engage in emotional exchange and other social skills like having conversations with others. Being a pervasive condition, it affects the person’s overall functioning. It won’t be very easy for them to meet and hang out with new people, to express themselves, to carry out certain daily activities like taking care of self and others, to immediately understand and respond to other’s feelings, etc. Of course this differs depending upon the degree. There are some people with ‘high functioning autism’ who have amazing cognitive abilities but probably fall short on the social skills.
Why autism awareness is important, especially in a country like India, is because there is already so much stigma attached to mental health and it’s issues that it gets very difficult for people with conditions like autism along with their families to live a dignified and peaceful life within a hostile society. People not only not accept them, but exercise marginalisation wherein they are excluded. People don’t want to engage with them in any manner. Instead, they’d either be scared of them or make fun of them. This indeed is very hurtful and shows how insensitive as a species we can get. Here comes the role of awareness. If people knew what autism is all about, they would realize that autistic children for example are not ‘dangerous’, ‘dumb’ and ‘mad’. They are just like other children. In fact, some of them are so intelligent and capable. You just need to understand and accept them as they are. The ways in which they learn and respond to you would be a little different. You would probably have to be more patient around them and modify your ways of interaction according to their needs. But that’s it. Not such a big deal. I am sure this much all of us can do. In fact, I am not even asking everyone to especially go and spend time with them but, at least there could be a level of inclusivity on which we operate.
One of the most beautiful experiences which I’ve had with children was, in fact, with autistic children. While interning in a school, I happened to work with special needs children and would spend almost the entire day with them. The center had children with learning problems, autism, cerebral proxy, and other developmental conditions. This was actually the first time that I was working with children so to say. I can still recall how nervous I was on my first day because I had always believed that being with children is not my cup of tea. I never took myself to be that patient, sweet and polite, all of which one needs to be with kids. I am so proud to say that on my last day there, I was crying my eyes out because I didn’t want to leave. First time in my life I had formed bonds so strong that it was almost impossible for me to even think of not seeing these amazing children everyday. When I left, it felt like I was leaving a part of me behind. Those kids still constitute one of the best memories I’ve made in my life till now. Just being with them, spending time with them would make me feel so happy. Their presence often had a calming effect on me somehow. I am so glad that I got to experience that.
Hence, I urge all the readers of this blog (and people they happen to discuss this with because that’s how it’ll spread!) to read more on autism. Try to understand what it is. This would help you in identifying the early signs through which you can suggest appropriate educational and skill developmental programs for such children. If you can, visit schools and centers working so amazingly with autism. I, myself, am so proud of some of my friends who do absolutely brilliant work with autistic children and adolescents. Go ahead, spread awareness, and help India to fight the stigma attached to autism.
And as you do that, do spread the word!