Monday, September 05, 2011

Humanity in Autism

I have been doing some unusual amount of reading regarding congenital disorders lately. It happened ever since I met this wonderful and amazing woman of our time a few days ago. So amazing and unique she is among us because of her autism – and her condition is not a classic one, but a highly-functioning autism that could probably set anyone still at their tracks.

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like you to meet Temple Grandin (whom I ‘met’ on HBO) - a lady of monumental strength that has braved against the strong tides of social stereotypes. In a field that is dominated by mostly brawn-but-no-brains men, she managed to single-handedly revolutionise the US cattle livestock industry; from a brutal system to a much humane one that teaches all of us to treat every living being with dignity and respect, especially if its ultimate sacrifice is meant to keep us alive. And as a frontliner in advocating autism, she will make you understand yourself better as a human being by ensuring you understand what the disorder really is first.

But what made my neurons in the brain all fired up is not regarding how the disorder comes to be. It is rather how the public approaches the whole issue. One of the major highlights that I learnt from the movie ‘Temple Grandin’ and after numerous fact-finding with brain-cracking almost brought me down to my knees with shame. It’s a reminiscence of my childhood during the schooling days.

Before I continue, to give a brief idea what autism is, it is a behavioural disorder with strong evidence of genetic predisposition. Community afflicted with this disorder will have a hard time blending into society and to communicate, but they excel in fields that require logical thinking like math and science. Sounds like Asperger’s Syndrome, but autism is not to be confused for that though both of them share strong similar traits. Most importantly, autistic people comprehend the world in a much different and specific way than us that makes them weirdo in the eyes of many – they pay more attention to details and processes rather than the bigger picture, rendering them to have more inputs from their sensory system. Thus they are more easily irritated (hypersensory) and may act in many different, strange ways to ease themselves.

So here’s the part that my old-self (and also many others) wasn’t aware of: autism can range from very mild, almost-undetectable ones to very severe types like what Grandin has. Remember that you used to laugh at kids who acted all odd and sometimes throwing tantrums, or the ones who you think were dorks and unable to solve the simplest question or carry out the most basic tasks? These people could very well have autism or other types of disorders like Down’s and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). They didn’t ask for these to begin with, and certainly they didn’t ask for your teasing, labelling and discrimination that arrive after. Above everything else, they don’t need your sympathy, but they will really appreciate your support.

As I continue to read further, it was horrifying to discover past related misconceptions which were based on pure assumptions driven by fear and unfamiliarity that could actually plunge the whole family into unnecessary hardship and humiliation. Ever wonder how the term ‘refrigerator mothers’ came into existence? It is used to describe mothers of autistic children whom members of public believe the emotional detachment that the mothers exhibited towards their offspring that offset the disorders in them. Makes you laugh? Think how was it like being a mother of an autistic child back in the 50’s and 60’s.

However, with the knowledge we possess today, fear towards these disorders should be something relatively of the past. Education for both communities is the key here – to integrate the involuntary outcasts and to have the society to accept them. We may have found the root of these disorders, but similarly to Grandin’s thoughts, a cure is not the answer since it will wipe out neurodiversity that makes mankind’s evolutionary feat our greatest survival arsenal in my belief. After all, half of the men and women who had and are going to transform this Earth into a better place for everyone are actually identified with somewhat kind of behavioural disorders with varying degrees, like the great Temple Grandin herself!

Nevertheless, solutions are everywhere. One of my favourite philosophers, Sir Ken Robinson who is a famous education reformist that has encountered numerous cases of ADHD (and other similar disorders) among school children said, there is no such disorder. They are proven on paper, but they are still subjected to plenty of debate. Reason he said that was after helping a child diagnosed with ADHD by her teachers to secure a better future. Recalling from his account, she may not be able to sit obediently or acquire long attention span in class, but her feet were able to lift gracefully in the presence of music much to the astonishment of her joyful mother and bewildered teachers.

So, all this just points towards one thing: that kids with such disorders are just normal after all, like each of our precious selves, they just need some direction to find where their passion really lies in and an avenue to express themselves. It’s actually not that complicated as we think.

p/s ‘Temple Grandin’ is now airing on HBO. Try to catch it!

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