On the heels of World Autism Awareness Day this past week, an interesting article turned viral as it made its rounds around social media. A teenager with autism boarded the wrong bus and was separated from his parents. After his father’s wild chase on a bicycle and frantic calls to neighbours, the teenager was reunited with his parents with the help of a family who came across the lost teenager. An interesting point to note is that the family who helped the teenager had a child with autism of their own. Without diminishing the kindness of the family who extended their help, it leaves us to wonder – would others have approached this teenager to him him?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has not always been the easiest to understand, let alone empathise with, in the public sphere. Representation of people with ASD in the media has (thankfully) improved over the years. Moving away from the trope of the overstimulated child having a public meltdown, American Netflix series ‘Atypical’ and Korean drama series ‘It’s Okay Not To Be Okay’ are presenting more nuanced portrayals of people on the autism spectrum. With these series bringing about greater awareness of ASD, the next step for the public would arguably be to gain a deeper sense of understanding and having meaningful exchanges with people with autism.
Yishun Training and Development Centre (YTDC) is MINDS’ pioneer autism-focused day activity centre. When asked about how the community surrounding YTDC respond to the clients, Head of Centre, Ms Dorothy Ng recounts that the community has generally been accepting of the clients of YTDC. However, Ms Ng also mentioned that they generally do not actively step in to learn more or interact with clients. Social media responses of the viral article, the online community largely responded with encouraging messages of solidarity for people with ASD and praise for the helpful family. Heart-warming as this response is, it is not difficult to imagine how differently the narrative might have unfolded had the teenager not come across a family who themselves had a child with autism. While it is encouraging to know that persons with autism are not actively shunned in the spaces they live and work in and do have a form of acceptance from the public, it is not sufficient for society to remain at a place of simple acceptance a “safe distance” away.
How then does our society move forward from being bystanders to friends of people with ASD? Ms. Richa Karanwal, a volunteer at MINDS Me Too! Club, suggests that it starts simply by meeting them and observing their behaviours. This sentiment is paralleled in YTDC, where new Training Officers, interns and volunteers learn to engage with clients through a buddying system with senior Training Officers to understand each client’s behaviour. Ms. Ng shares that many interns eventually return as full-time Training Officers and form close ties with their clients.
As the events and campaigns continue in celebration of World Autism Awareness Day, another point of consideration could be to go a step further from observing persons with autism to observing the world through their eyes. The flicker of the green man at road crossings, the sound of the “karang guni” man’s horn, the time buses and trains arrive at their stops and stations. These little things are a shared experience in the lives of people with or without autism. While we may respond to these experiences differently, it is ultimately these little things that can bring us together.
By Tabitha Tan Mei Ting, Strategic Communications Executive, MINDS
Featured in the April 2021 issue of MINDShare – our monthly e-newsletter. Scroll down for more original stories from our MINDS community.