The fifth annual World Autism Awareness Day is April 2, 2012. Just like last year, over 2,000 iconic landmarks such as the Empire State Building in NYC, the CN Tower in Canada and Canton Tower in China will be lit up in blue to mark this historic account. However, here in Pakistan, an apathetic attitude and ignorance about the day and the disorder will prevent the society from playing its part in spreading awareness about the issue.
Autism is a developmental disorder that involves problems of social communication, inflexible language and behaviour and repetitive sensory movements, amongst other symptoms. To this day, no one has been able to conclude the causes of autism. Most researchers do concur that it is “caused by abnormalities in brain structure or function” — as explained by Andrew W Zimmerman in his book Autism: current theories and evidence. But research still lacks any definite evidence on the reasons for this brain malfunction. Factors vary from “heredity” to “environmental” conditions such as “viral infections, metabolic imbalances, and exposure to environmental chemicals”.
Having been trained in the Son-rise programme for autistic people, I have volunteered for a number of young children in Pakistan who have been diagnosed with this disorder. Spending time with them has been challenging, but extremely rewarding. In my experience, autistic children are very keen on having an established routine and find it difficult to adjust to a new environment, familiarity being the key to their comfort. They partake in activities which are shrouded in mystery; one 10-year old boy would tear paper along its length in perfect two-inch pieces for hours and then stack it up neatly in a tall pile. As the disorder is on a spectrum, its diagnosis and therapy depends on the individual’s challenges. However, one of the tell-tale signs of autism — which I have frequently noted — is the echoing of a sound or word simultaneously, or repeating an action obsessively which makes little sense to an onlooker.
In a country as judgmental and unsympathetic as ours towards the needs of such children, the anxiety they feel is further aggravated when strangers look intrusively at them and conclude from their behaviour that their upbringing has been poor. However, what people don’t realise is that autistic children are usually highly-intuitive and are brilliant readers of a person’s body language, tone and mood. Furthermore, this attitude makes the parents of these children feel stigmatised and often they distance themselves from society to protect their child. A recent study published in The New York Times concludes that on average, mothers of autistic children in the US earn 35 per cent less than mothers of children with another health limitation, and 56 per cent less than the mothers of children with no health limitations.
Thus we must play our part, like the rest of the world, in accommodating the requirements of people with special needs so that they feel accepted. Pakistan has been facing several challenges in accepting diversity in its people and this is perhaps one such challenge. Throughout the world initiatives such as autism-friendly film viewing — where needs of special children which include being able to move around freely and make as much noise as they want — are respected and catered for. It is about time our society awakens to this reality and starts treating people with disabilities in a more welcoming and friendly manner.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 2nd, 2012.
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