Different strokes, of varying degrees on a spectrum of colour. The biggest mistake people make is likening themselves to pantone canvases: made to fit into aesthetics, corners, places. Labeled. Made to slip into the crowd, assimilated seamlessly into a system built brick by brick by the ones who regard themselves ‘normal’. What is ‘normal’? Who gets to decide what ‘normal’ is? What happens when the only ‘normal’ known is not the only ‘normal’ there is? Then, painted glass shatters into a kaleidoscope of patterns, colours, motifs. A new realm of possibility and acceptance is birthed. This analogy paints the same dilemma people on the spectrum face every day. Defined as a broad range of conditions, typically characterised by difficulty with social interaction, speech and non-verbal communication, and restricted as well as repetitive behaviour, autism can be likened to a spectrum of colour because of varying subtypes it blankets over.
Eugen Blueler first used the term “autistic” to define symptoms associated with schizophrenia in 1912. It wasn’t until the mid 20th century, that autism itself was used as a diagnostic term for a developmental disorder. Based on the World Health Organisation (WHO), about 1 in 270 people worldwide are estimated to be on the ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) spectrum. A smaller-scale study conducted by the Ministry of Health showed a rate of approximately 1.6% in 1000 children aged 18 to 26 months have been recorded with autism. That’s 1 in 625 children. People have theorized many causes for autism, there is not one definite cause that can be identified. Past research has shown that autism develops from a combination of both genetic, non-genetic or environmental and external factors. Some studies have shown that autism does tend to run in families. However, even people who are not neurodivergent may carry the same genetic configuration as their relatives who are in fact autistic themselves. Hence, no direct correlation can be made between genes and the probability of someone being on the spectrum.
Since autism is a spectrum itself, the symptoms for each neurodivergent person can differ greatly. Nonetheless, the hallmark traits of such people include impaired communication, social skills and repetitive, or sometimes restrictive behaviour. People on the higher end of the spectrum may sometimes barely even show some of these traits but still report feeling a detachment in social settings and consistently not being able to ‘read a room’ and behave appropriately to the feelings of their peers, as well as experiencing sensory overload in certain overwhelming situations. Individuals on the opposing end of the spectrum experience and display these symptoms far more deeply and obviously than their counterparts. Some of them may still require another adult’s care and supervision even in their own adulthood.
Unfortunately, the lack of awareness and understanding about autism in the society can make it difficult for people who have autism to have their condition recognized and access to the privilege they are entitled to. Here are some common misconceptions that can lead those with autism to be isolated and, in worse cases, abused and bullied due to their different behaviours.
Misconceptions on Autism:
The first and foremost misconception is that those with autism do not have feelings and cannot show affection like a log of wood. According to the Autism Research Group at City University London, this is not the case. In fact, a substantial proportion of individuals with autism spectrum suffer from symptoms of anxiety and depression that significantly compromise their quality of life. They do have emotions, but the display of emotions may appear different from others as they may find it difficult to express their feelings. Therefore, always remember that people with autism do have emotions and may get hurt too, just like everyone else.
Besides that, autism being the result of bad parenting is also one of the commonly heard misconceptions. Autism is generally caused by a disorder in the brain structure or brain development in early childhood. Science shows that there are strong links to both genetics and environmental factors. Studies suggest that factors such as medications or complications during pregnancy or air pollutants may cause Autism Spectrum Disorder. Thus, the ways of parenting do not cause autism.
People with autism can be productive and contribute back to the society like typical people if they are provided with proper support and guidance. Everyone should be more aware of the challenges that autisms face in their lives and provide the support they need. The common challenges usually faced by people with autism is dealing with change. They tend to find change very stressful as many often prefer familiar environments with a repetitive routine. Therefore, in order to prevent them from being stressed and fearful, try to keep everything the same with ahead planning if there are any changes to be made.
Furthermore, people with autism may have trouble developing language skills and understanding what others say to them. They have difficulty learning the language because they tend to focus on other things instead of other people during the first 12 months, unlike typically developing children. They also may be unable to understand body language and the meanings of different vocal tones, limiting them to interact with other people. Some with autism may never develop oral speech and language skills as they communicate with gestures such as sign language.
With our local society progressing towards a more inclusive and immersive education made available for all children, there are many options available for individuals with autism to help cope with their difficulties and make learning a lot more suited for their capabilities. It should also be strongly noted that autism is NOT a sickness or illness that needs to be cured. It is merely a developmental disorder that enables some individuals to process information differently and respond differently than what is expected. Options like speech therapy, music therapy and cognitive behaviour therapy are all ways to help autistic people better understand themselves and cope with their sensory issues and verbal skills. There are even schools available that cater specifically to the needs of children on the spectrum. Early intervention programs also equip these children with basic life skills for their social development and educational needs.
Organisations like the National Autism Society of Malaysia (NASOM), SPICES Early Intervention Centre and Hatching, Early Intervention Programs, are all qualified, well-informed groups that have the necessary means to cater to children on the spectrum and empower them with skills and opportunities to help their learning process. However, it isn’t just the responsibility of these organisations to help autistic people achieve the best they can, it is up to the public as well. With proper education on the autism spectrum to raise awareness of these people’s struggles, they would be better understood and dealt with in society. One must be patient and sensitive to an autistic person’s situation and feelings, like anyone else. Alienating that one ‘weird’ classmate will not magically make them feel any better. Instead, opt to understand where they’re coming from and what their dilemma must be like. People on the spectrum spend so much energy trying to ‘mask’ their neurodivergent behaviour just to fit it. Hence, being an ally to people on the spectrum doesn’t just mean including them in social settings, but also making them feel safe and accepted. Staring disapprovingly when they make odd movements or sounds in public or making fun of their stuttering are examples of things not to do as someone who intends to be an ally to neurodivergent people. Acceptance is always key when it comes to helping these people feel understood in a society that constantly promotes ‘fitting in’.
In a nutshell, everyone should treat those with autism the same way they treat others and provide a helping hand whenever they need it. This is because they generally experience an elevated level of anxiety, and bullying or abusing them will lead to depression and social phobia. As parents, they should never be ashamed of seeking help as early treatment will increase the chance of an autistic child’s development. Last but not least, love them unconditionally and provide a space at home where they can relax and, most importantly, feel safe. Like everyone else, people with autism have an entire lifetime to grow and develop their abilities. Tyler Durdin once quoted, “I do not suffer from autism, but I do suffer from the way you treat me.”
Written by: Hannah Rahel & Nicholas Tan
Edited by: Wu Wen Qi