3 ways the community can offer support to people with autism
I taught a class with some remarkable teenagers with autism some years ago.
I taught a class with some remarkable teenagers with autism some years ago.
One had little speech and consistently needed a carer. Another spoke in short, halting phrases and a third was able to fully communicate verbally but would be unnerved by the slightest change in environments.
From the surface, these teenagers seem to have little in common but they do: They have all received a diagnosis of autism.
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, is a condition that occurs in about one in every 100 people.
Like many developmental conditions, autism affects a person's development from birth and cannot be identified by any physical features.
Rather, persons with autism show differences in social understanding and communication, as well as a focused/repetitive range of interests and behaviour.
About a third of persons with this diagnosis have an intellectual disability but others with autism may be very intellectually talented.
Some, but not all, persons with autism also show some specific talent such as encyclopedic knowledge of specific topics, music talent, mathematical skills (such as calendar calculation), or memory skills.
People with autism can sometimes be misunderstood to be more or less able than they appear to be.
Persons with autism experience emotions like we do. In fact, research internationally indicates that persons with autism frequently report higher levels of loneliness, depression and anxiety.
SUPPORTING PERSONS WITH AUTISM
The first autism-specific programme in Singapore was established in 1989 at Margaret Drive Special School, and services have since proliferated.
More persons with autism are now identified to have the condition at a younger age.
There are also more services for persons with autism starting from early intervention programmes and throughout the school years.
In general, there has also been an increase in the number of choices and shorter waiting times. With a greater voice of self-advocates, family members, and social service agencies, there has been greater public awareness than ever before.
These advances serve to bring persons with autism closer to the recently launched autism enabling masterplan’s objective of “empowering and enabling persons with autism to realise their full potential and live quality lives”.
ROLE OF THE COMMUNITY
Apart from equipping persons with autism with skills, the participation or inclusion within society necessitates more than just skilled professionals and adequate support.
It also requires the support of the community around the person with autism and their family.
Research by the National Institute of Education with industry collaborators found that safety and security were among the main concerns of Singapore parents of children with autism attending special schools.
These parents also highlighted the struggles they faced with an unsympathetic public. They have also emphasised that the family needs of participating in social, recreational, and religious activities are the least met.
It seems then, from our research, that the community around them contributes to the worry, stress, and despair that they experience.
However, this need not be the case. The community can similarly be a source of strength and support. I would like to propose three ways to do this:
1. MAKE ROOM IN OUR HEARTS
Our research of inclusive attitudes among teachers (and likely adults, in general) is consistent with international research that the biggest predictor of positive attitudes towards persons with disabilities is having previously experienced positive interactions.
Conversely, the lack of such experiences is associated with less inclusive attitudes.
One place to start then, would be with ourselves. This means suspending judgement and making room in our hearts for persons who may seem different from us.
We usually really do not know if another person has autism. We know, however, that the reaction from society may have an impact on how persons with autism feel about themselves.
Society’s reactions (such as, stares and chides) can also affect the confidence of a person with autism or the family’s confidence in participating in society.
As such, suspending our social judgement of what is appropriate and inappropriate, and taking the first step forward to understand and help will offer a lifeline for persons with autism (and their families) to participate and thrive.
2. CREATE A CULTURE OF CARE
Some of us will recall a heartwarming story last year of a couple who took a lost teenager with autism to the police station, reuniting the teenager with his parents.
It is understandable that not everyone will know what to do in a similar situation. Additionally, some persons with autism or their families may also want to address the situation themselves.
In such situations, asking the person with autism or their family members if they need help, is one way to provide support respectfully.
If a person’s wellbeing or that of others is under threat, alerting the relevant authorities can provide the person with help. This often-ignored aspect of the community is one that can make or break an employment placement, or the confidence of a person with autism (or family) to participate further in society.
In a similar vein, some of the youth with autism we interviewed in another study indicated that they had been bullied.
Although the focus in bullying is frequently on the person perpetrating the bullying behaviour and the person being bullied, the role of bystanders is frequently overlooked.
Yet bystanders can play the very important role of reporting these behaviours.
Another way to cultivate a culture of care, then, is to create a social environment that does not tolerate behaviour that constitutes bullying.
3. GROOM THE NEXT GENERATION
One common reason for the general apprehension in interacting with persons with autism is our lack of experience.
Yet research by graduate students at the National Institute of Education indicates that we can start inculcating these positive attitudes and skills in the young.
One of our graduate students demonstrated that positive perspectives of children with special needs can be inculcated by teachers within a literacy lesson among preschool children.
Likewise, another student also demonstrated that primary school children can be taught to interact with a classmate with autism during recess.
Although the studies above indicate that inclusive perceptions and behaviours can be explicitly imparted, the saying that values are caught and not taught also holds true.
Adults, particularly parents and teachers, can be positive role models in supporting peers with autism and in encouraging the development of positive social relationships.
You would have heard the adage that it takes a village to bring up a child. This holds even more true for facilitating the positive development and inclusion of persons with autism.
Much progress has been made in the development of early intervention and educational services. However, I would argue that the role of every member within society is vital for the inclusion of persons with autism.
April is World Autism Awareness month, so the challenge for us is to take the next step to bringing this hope towards reality.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Kenneth Poon is a co-director of the Centre for Research in Child Development and an associate professor at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University. He also serves as President of Rainbow Centre, Singapore, and a Board Member of the National Council of Social Service.