COMMENT | Just a week ago, a 22-year-old, Adam (not his real name), ran out of a restaurant and inappropriately touched an adult girl he didn’t know. As a result, the girl’s parents made a police report against him.
Adam ended up being arrested, handcuffed and spent a night in the police lock-up. Pictures of him in the trademark orange suit appeared on social media.
Sound like a just result? Not at all. The girl was but one victim here. The others were Adam, who is autistic, as well as his mother. They were victims of ignorance about autism. Let me tell you why.
Adam is a victim of a violation of basic human rights because he was treated unjustly. His mother is a victim of public shunning. The authorities are victims of lack of knowledge and awareness about autism as they assumed Adam had acted willfully. Collectively, it resulted in extreme discrimination against Adam and his family.
As a special needs teacher who works with adults with special needs, including those with autism, this incident highlighted to me how ignorance about autism drives people's reaction to it. There are a lot of preconceived ideas about what autism is. Let me first state what it isn’t. Autism isn’t a disease. It isn’t something you can contract. It isn’t poor upbringing. It isn’t a mother’s fault. It most certainly isn’t insanity.
Established research shows that autism is a complex neurobehavioural condition. Due to the complexity of the condition and the range of symptoms that are prevalent, it is now called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This covers a wide spectrum of symptoms, skills and levels of impairment. While there are shared characteristics, it is important to remember and acknowledge that autism presents itself differently, in different people.
There are some characteristics to recognise when interacting with a child or adult with ASD. Firstly, children and adults with ASD prefer predictable and unchanging sequences in their daily lives. There is an excessive adherence to routines, patterns or behaviour and they can get distressed at minor or major changes.
Routines are important
Routines are important and if there is a change, transition warnings are helpful. Secondly, they might need extra time to process language. Receptive language and expressive language are two very different things to them. While children and adults with ASD may struggle with expressive language, it does not mean that their understanding is compromised.
Thirdly, they may often need some help with social interactions. Fourthly, children and adults with ASD may use stereotypic or repetitive behaviours when they are excited, bored or stressed. Lastly, sensory issues can pose as a distraction. Sometimes, one or more of the senses are either over- or under-reactive to stimulation.
Now, let me try and explain this with reference to some examples of my personal behaviour. Ever since I was young, I have been fixated with the idea that I have to rearrange the furniture in my bedroom every six months. If I don’t, I feel uneasy.
There are also moments in my life where I am unable to express my thoughts coherently. This is a minor and infrequent struggle with expressive language. Just as no one has a perfect social interaction record, I too can become quite apprehensive at the thought of a big gathering with friends.
Now, just imagine having to face such experiences every minute of every day as some children and adults with autism may have to. We must surely be able to relate to this on some level.
We all have a type of behaviour that makes us different from others. Why aren’t these behaviours targeted as a social anomaly? Is it because we are able to verbalise our feelings or act to defend ourselves?
If Adam struggles with expressive language, the authorities should have tried to explain right from wrong by perhaps presenting it to him in other ways. Learning to communicate with children and adults with special needs is very critical. As I mentioned earlier, their level of understanding should not be underestimated.
Adam would also have been anxious at the interruption of his normal routine. He was put in a lock-up for one night and this was a major change in his everyday routine and probably traumatic for him. Fortunately, the magistrate rightly rejected the four-day remand order sought by the police. Positive reinforcements are helpful. Punishments are not.
Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, the director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, stated that children and adults with autism deserve the right to dignity, education, equal access to public services, work and employment, protection from discrimination, protection of the law and the right to a fair and impartial trial.
Adam’s basic human rights were violated in this incident. It is clear that he wasn’t protected from discrimination and his self-worth was ignored. Children and adults with ASD deserve the right to an environment where everyone around them fully understands and respects their condition, just as we deserve the right to our own ideas, beliefs and selves being valued.
It is essential that we further educate ourselves and those around us, encourage training for our first responders and eradicate false beliefs that some may have about autism. Simple education of Adam’s first responder would have avoided anguish for him and his mother. Importantly, it would have also helped the victim’s parents employ that most distinguished of characteristics: Empathy.
While writing this article, I read of the anguish faced by the girl due to many unkind and uncalled for and even sexist remarks being made about her and her dressing, thus in some way blaming her for the incident. This is completely unacceptable. This is a situation where both are blameless and both have suffered a traumatic event.
We must continue to inquire from children and adults with ASD about what they need and how they live their lives. We must do this to ensure that they are fully integrated into our society and are involved in determining their future. We can then ensure that their basic human rights are upheld. And that there are fewer victims of ignorance about special needs.
SHARANYA RADHAKRISHNAN is co-founder of Gem & Bread Special Needs Support Group. Email: [email protected]
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.