Saturday, October 06, 2007

Autism

This morning, I had the good opportunity to visit an autism care centre on a guided tour and had a better understanding of autism and persons suffering from autism. In the context of our visit, we are being introduced to the term that the centre uses for the patients: clients.

The general public does not have a good understanding of these clients. When one sees the clients in the public, the general consensus that one gives to this disadvantaged group of people is that they are not normal, and what one will usually do is to stare at their behaviours, and at time, some unkind folks may even jeer at them. This is understandable as many of us do not comprehend their actions.

I really treasure today’s guided visit to the autism centre and I would like to share with all what I have learnt from today’s visit.

Autism is hardly detected in affected young toddlers and signs of autism in a young affected child only surface out when he or she reaches 3 years of age. When these signs are detected, their parents often believe that ‘something is just not right’ about their children till autism is confirmed by doctors and the harsh reality sinks in.

The truth is that autism is a neurological illness. It is a complex disease and the clients are in fact normal people who have suffered from a disease which hampers interaction and comprehension of the world and reality and makes their actions a misfit with the actual world.

The clients generally have a sharp visual sense and they interpret the world largely via visual means. If one is to pass messages to them through speech, they will not understand as they usually do not have a capacity to process and hence fore comprehend instructions or messages through listening. They comprehend the world visually. If you want the clients to carry out an activity, the successful way to do so is to depict the activity on a picture card to remind them. For them to carry out several activities, these activities are drawn on a series of cards and pasted on a wall; once an activity is carried out, the associated card is taken off the list and they will then comprehend the next activity as drawn on the next card.

The clients may not have a good memory and therefore visual reminders are necessary to be carried by or to be shown to them constantly to remind them of what they are going to do next. In the public, it is not uncommon to see the clients carrying some forms of cards; and the masses do not really understand this fact and just stare at what they are doing with the cards.

For autistic people to comprehend the world, pictorial illustration is paramount. The clients generally do not possess the faculty to decipher the emotions of man. A normal man may tell when another is angry, happy or sad but autistic people are not able to do so. To teach them the emotions of happy, sad, angry, etc, one needs to produce the various pictorial illustrations of these emotions. One needs to be mindful that a comprehensive list of illustrations of emotions of real people to be shown to the clients, else they will believe that to be happy is just to see a smiley face J.

Some autistic people are really visually focused to an extent that if one just slightly shifts the books placed by him on a table by a slight angle at the end of the day, the next day, he may be depressed on noticing that the book he has placed is not in the exact orientation that he has placed.

Learning is critical for all human beings. In the centre, lessons are taught to the patients largely by visual means no least.

The clients are generally viewed as people with low intelligence, but you may be surprised that some of them actually show a level of intelligence or talent that is hard to be surpassed by normal man. For example, we are told that one such patient, about 13 to 16 yrs old can play a Mozart piece on a piano with no teaching at all!

Many will often think that when a person suffers from autism, he is the only one affected. The truth is that the family of the clients suffer as well. We were being told that some parents, on reaching an advanced age, worry about their autistic child after they pass on. A few of them even contemplate the drastic thought of dying with their autism child so that they can continue to care for them in their afterlife. Their main worry is their children being uncared for after they pass on.

Stress is not experienced and confined to the autistic parents alone, siblings of the clients are affected too. We were being told that some older siblings of the clients become surrogate parents of their younger autistic sibling at a young age of four. Parent of autistic clients may spend a large chunk of their time catering to the needs of them and neglect their other children. These can lead to detriment effects on these siblings.

It is important for Singaporeans to have a deeper understanding of autistic people so that acceptance of them in our mainstream society is easier to attain and discrimination against them will reduce. Contributions to society by this group may be less or none but one needs to value them as an individuals. They have inner worth, strength and beauty to be valued by all. If it is hard for one to understand these facts, individuals born healthy shall feel we are indeed blessed and fortunate as compared to this disadvantaged lot. We shall try to engage the clients and integrate them into society, for they are also part of society.

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