Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental condition that entails impairment in communication and socialisation. Autism is a Spectrum condition which means that children with autism are very different from each other and the symptoms vary greatly. But across the spectrum the impairments in communication and socialisation remain. Many children with Autism also have hypo or hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli (sound, light, touch, smell and taste). In India, while children with greater impairment are more easily recognised, many children on the Autism Spectrum still go without help for most part of their lives. They struggle through childhood with a lot of bullying in adolescence, low self esteem and sometimes depression. Children with Autism are often misdiagnosed as having Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder or Mental Retardation or 'behavioural' problems in India. You can find a lot of information about Autism symptoms and therapies online. Autism awareness in India is growing largely due to parent organisations who have done excellent work to improve awareness, intervention and support services for persons living with Autism:
Forum for Autism Awareness in Mumbai
An Inclusive Society:
Children with Autism are often refused into preschools and kindergartens because of delayed speech and difficulty in compliance with classroom rules. They often end up being severely reprimanded in primary, middle and high school for what is termed 'inappropriate' behaviour which may stem from the impairments in processing of sensory information, inability to communicate something or simply a misunderstanding of social stimuli/messages.
Kindergartens and Montessoris today focus intensively on group work and children with autism are often overwhelmed with too much social stimuli. They work efficiently in structured environments with reduced external stimuli. Yes learning to work in a group is important but loving to work individually should be respected too.
Children with Autism have different learning styles and schools and classrooms should accommodate these differences and provide support such as visual schedules and tools to help them understand better. They might need teacher assistants to help them settle and integrate mainstream classrooms and Inclusive education includes this kind of support from the school. Inclusive education means children with all kinds of difficulties learn to work together. It does not however, mean stereotyping and isolating a child because of his difficulties/differences.
Awareness among schools about Autism needs to increase because many children with Autism suffer in school as their difficulties are not identified or addressed. True inclusive education will only be a reality when society - individuals, parents, teachers and policy makers truly believe that all children should learn to work together and understand each others differences.
We as a society must become more open to our differences, our rigidity with what is 'appropriate' and 'inappropriate' stigmatizes so many people. This is why I think everybody who cares about respecting diversity should care about Autism.
Support for persons living with Autism and their parents:
Persons living with Autism are often lonely and so are their parents. Though persons with Autism like and enjoy social relationships they are often misunderstood and/or have difficulty initiating and managing them. Understanding Autism as a condition helps incredibly in understanding people on the spectrum. Learn about it. Be supportive of parents, offer play time with your child, or an outing with your family or simply to baby sit. Remember, they don't want or need pity, they just want to be and live their lives fully. Respect them.
What you can do:
- Learn about Autism in detail, read books about Autism, watch movies, read blogs and articles written by people with Asperger's Syndrome (a form of Autism).
- If you know a person with Autism or are a parent and know a child with Autism ask for details understand the condition, explain it to your child, don't just say 'he has difficulties' or 'he is different', explain the condition and encourage your child to play together and understand each others differences.
- If you are a parent, you can also talk to your child's school about Autism and encourage them to be inclusive.
- If you are a health professional, learn about Autism ASAP and join an awareness/support group in your city.
- Talk about Autism, blog about Autism, spread the word.
- Understand and Advocate that DIFFERENT does not mean LESS!
This is one of the sites I like best on Autism as a condition and individuals living with Autism - Thinking Person's Guide to Autism
Autistic Advocacy is an initiative by a group of individuals with Autism - Check them out.
'Thinking in Pictures' by Temple Grandin (Individual with Asperger's) and 'The curious Incident of the dog at the night time' by Mark Haddon (neurotypical as in not on the spectrum) are my favourite books related to the condition. Find Them, Read Them, Recommend Them!
Two amazing Videos explaining Autism Spectrum Disorders to children (and adults. why not?)
HERE is an exhaustive list of resources.
Finally in India, the Autism India yahoo group and the India Developmental disabilities yahoo groups are very resourceful and keep you up to date on Autism info in India.
Happy Autism Acceptance Day everyone!