Understanding autism better
One reprehensible slur in the 2010 presidential election was “Abnoy,” directed at then candidate Benigno Aquino III by some supporters of his rivals and a label meant to question his mental faculty and fitness for the singular post. In recent days, social media users employ the term “Dutertard” to show their contempt for people they consider retarded and not in full control of their wits.
Such labels, recklessly used, speak of the general attitude of shame among Filipinos whose kin might suffer from mental and physical infirmities, including autism, Down’s Syndrome and retardation, and also explain why those thus handicapped are sometimes locked away from the public eye.
Which makes Autism Consciousness Week, observed every third week of January on the strength of then President Fidel Ramos’ Proclamation 711, a much-needed nudge in these days of post-truth observations and thinning tolerance for diversity and weakness. The observance is intended to encourage awareness about autism and inspire acceptance and inclusion of persons with autism, so that they may live with dignity, enjoy equal rights and access, function independently, and contribute productively to society.
For far too long, people considered mentally handicapped are lumped together as retardates—the subject of derision and schoolyard pranks and bullying for being different. A recent incident involved a local airline offloading a mother and her autistic child because the latter was having a tantrum—a manifestation of the disorder. Such a response speaks of the lack of understanding of autism, and the lack of sensitivity to it among the public.
But thanks to efforts of private groups, composed mostly of parents of autistic children, people today are more knowledgeable of autism, a group of developmental disorders manifested mainly in difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, and repetitive behavior. While some autistic persons are able to function independently, many of them require assistance throughout their lives.
The number of people with autism spectrum disorder in the Philippines and other countries has been rising in recent years. Health experts attribute the increase to better detection methods, although genetics and environmental factors have also been considered as factors.
In the Philippines, estimated cases of autism have risen from 500,000 in 2008 to one million at present, and even higher, experts say, “since a lot of areas in the country are still not covered.”
The definitive cause of autism has yet to be determined, but private groups are pushing for the establishment of a comprehensive government program to help families get early detection services for their kin. Early detection, these groups say, is important for autism management, and would help families get the right treatment and intervention. Early screening should be available in government hospitals to help poor families detect development disorders early and seek help, the groups add.
And while the recently signed Republic Act No. 10754 expands the benefits of persons with disabilities, with a 20-percent discount and VAT exemption in the purchase of goods and services, medicines and food, dental, diagnostic and lab fees, professional fees of attending doctors, as well as discounts in sea, air and land transport and burial services, much remains to be done to help parents of autistic children.
Tax breaks for parents, a widespread public education and awareness campaign on symptoms to watch out for, how to cope with autistic children, and a protocol among public utility personnel, the establishment of more schools and hiring of trained mentors responsive to these children’s special needs, are some of the government initiatives suggested by groups involved in autism research and advocacy, that would go a long way to counter the lack of resources that has burdened parents of autistic children.
A better understanding of autism, stronger government support, timely action from the private sector and support groups, beefed-up resources, and how to develop a more accepting attitude in dealing with autistic individuals—these are just some of the issues worth exploring during and even beyond Autism Consciousness Week.
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