#StayAwarePH: What is A-U-T-I-S-M? | By Kirsten Tinoco

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Growing up, I’ve always heard my relatives use autistic as an insult.

“Bakit ganyan ‘yan manamit? Autistic ata yan eh.”

“Parang iba siya kumilos… baka autistic ‘yan.”

As a child, this made me think of autism as something that causes one to be inferior or embarrassing.

Unfortunately, this misinformation was fuelled when I was 14 and my class was having a soiree, which is an interaction between your class and another class from a different school.

One of my classmates wasn’t invited and one of the organizers said it was because she was otist (autistic). I laughed along, but I was older this time, so I knew better. There was something deeply upsetting about her choice of words. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t say anything.

I’m 17 now and more sensitive and aware about mental health disabilities and issues. Moreso, I have been given a platform through Talang Dalisay to speak up about these issues. I have been silent about the stigma attached to autism for most of my life, but now I want to use my voice to debunk this stigma.

However, before writing this article, I struggled with thinking about how I could make this article more personal. I wanted to pull at people’s heartstrings. I wanted to touch people’s hearts, but I didn’t have any personal experiences to debunk this stigma — and I didn’t want to base this article on assumptions or online sources — so I called one of my mom’s close friends.

Her friend has a son on the autism spectrum. My mom would always tell me about how they would dote over their son. They encourage him to play sports, enrolled him to school, and bring him to playdates. Yes, they recognize his diagnosis, but they never gave in to its stigma. They recognize that he is different, but know that he is not inferior, embarrassing or less of a person because of his diagnosis.

With this, I thought her friend was the perfect person to interview.

As the interviewee wishes to remain anonymous, we’ll dub him as “Tom” and his son as “Jack.”

Tom discovered that Jack was on the autism spectrum when he was 18 months old and he consulted a developmental pediatrician. He said that Jack was developing normally until he was about 12 months old and then he slowly “reversed.” Tom mentioned that the number one indicator they noticed was that Jack was unable to make eye contact unlike other children.

Despite this, Tom and his wife try their best to treat Jack as you would a normal child. They love him as any parent would a normal child. In fact, it is a joy when they see Jack achieve new things, such as counting to 10, recognizing his name when called, and so many more.

However, Tom also mentioned that they struggle when it comes to Jack’s schooling. The growth rate of therapy centers and Special Education schools have boomed in the Filipinos in the last few years, but unfortunately these are expensive. Sending your child to therapy centers and SPED schools cost around twice or thrice the price of exclusive schools.

Additionally, they struggle with Jack’s quirks. There were periods when he only wanted to play with the iPad, freak out at any baby crying, run around in circles for 30 minutes, and only wanted to play with certain toys. There were also frustrating incidents for him when he wasn’t understood due to be non-communicative.

In spite of these struggles, Tom and his wife still find joy in raising Jack. He said that they have developed a lot of patience and increased their faith in God. Aside from this, they realized the importance of preparing for the future, in case Jack doesn’t progress or have family to support him in the future.

They also recognized his strengths and progress. Tom mentioned that Jack is exceptionally good at computer games, although they try to wean him away from these to help him communicate more. He also has a very cheerful disposition that puts his caretakers, Tom and his wife, in a better mood.

Jack has also progressed so much from before. Now, he can make jokes, talk when he wants or needs something and understand others; these are things he wasn’t able to do before.

Furthermore, Tom also mentioned the stigma or misconceptions circling autism that he wants to address. Firstly, he said, we must understand that the study of autism only began in the 70’s or 80’s. Despite this, the Philippines, in his opinion, has already begun understanding autism way better than our Asian neighbors. For instance, in Thailand, you would have a very hard time finding therapists for kids with autism based on his experiences. In some cultures, parents hide away their kids with autism and never talk about them with non-relatives because it makes them feel ashamed or embarrassed. But in the Philippines, we have a big number of therapists for autistic children (although expensive) and autism is slowly becoming something people freely discuss.

Still, Tom said, the science of solving autism is evolving; it is a young science. Autism used to be lumped with “mental retardation” and “intellectual disability,” which he thinks incited the stigma/misconceptions. But now, with further research and the Internet, people are becoming more educated and aware of autism. He hopes that people will continue to educate themselves and be more enlightened in order to debunk the stigma/misconceptions revolving around autism.

The main takeaways from Tom’s interview for me are these:

It is important to recognize the beauty in autism (or mental health in general), too.

Tom made it evident that he acknowledges the struggles that come with autism. He acknowledges that his son is harder to take care of than other kids and that his son has unique learning differences. Despite these, Tom also acknowledges the joy in raising a child with autism. He described the joy he feels when Jack achieves new things, when Jack shows his excellence in computer games (which not everyone can do), and when Jack shows progress. In short, Tom showed the beauty and strengths of raising a child with autism, which debunks the stigma that autism is associated with inferiority and shame.

2. It is important to be educated and aware about autism (or mental health in general) in order to be progressive.

Tom mentioned the stigma circling autism. It is seen in the scarcity of therapists for children with autism in some countries, and in the way some parents are ashamed of their autistic children in some cultures. However, with further research and the Internet, people are becoming more educated and aware of autism, which helps in debunking the misconceptions surrounding it.

Overall, we must embrace the ability in disability, as Talang Dalisay’s vision says. We must recognize that mental disabilities are beautiful, too, and are not supposed to be associated inferiority and shame. Instead, we should help the mentally disabled reach their full potential, knowing that their mental disability makes them even more beautiful.

Aside from this, we must be aware. We must be aware about mental health and its implications. We should not generalize or simplify mental health and people with mental health disabilities. Mental health is something very broad and affects so many people, and being educated and aware of it will help in creating a more progressive and compassionate community. Thus, it is important to #StayAwarePH.

About the Author

Kirsten is a high school junior with a strong advocacy for mental health. As one of Talang Dalisay’s correspondents, she aims to spread the word on pressing matters revolving the subject matter and hopes to create an impactful change through her words and people’s insightful stories. 

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