By Alex Y. Vergara
The statistics are alarming. As recent as 2008, the ratio of people with autism vis-à-vis the general population was one for every 220. By 2011, according to figures provided by the World Health Organization (WHO), the new global ratio has jumped to one for every 68. If you think that’s bad, in South Korea today one out of 35 people is said to be autistic.
More unfortunate still is the inability of various experts in the field to agree on what really causes the brain condition, which leaves young children, mostly boys, generally unresponsive, unable to make eye contact, fixated on certain tasks and routines, and sometimes lacking in empathy. In some cases, the autistic person remains uncommunicative or non-verbal, making it harder for his parents to know what’s on his mind.
Rizalio Sanchez, chief of information, education, and communications division of the National Council on Disability Affairs (NCDA), shared these numbers just before last April’s lighting ceremony at the Araneta Coliseum’s main gate in Cubao, Quezon City.
Just like other iconic buildings and landmarks the world over such as the Eiffel Tower, Washington Monument, Empire State Building, Sydney Opera House, and even a section of the Niagara Falls, part of the Big Dome was bathed in blue light for one hour (from 6 to 7 p.m.) as a symbolic gesture supporting the United Nation’s declaration of April as World Autism Awareness Month. (Most cities in North America held the symbolic lighting on April 2.)
The project was part of the corporate social responsibility efforts of J. Amado Araneta Foundation, Inc., Araneta Center, and Smart Araneta Coliseum, in partnership with the Philippine Association for Citizens with Developmental and Learning Disabilities (PACDLD).
The day began much earlier at Gateway Gallery with PACDLD, led by Jean Gonzales, giving Autism Awareness awards to 10 Filipino professionals for their life’s work with autistics. They included doctors, therapists, and special education teachers. PACDLD also recognized the efforts of eight parents with children with autism.
Gonzales, whose son Magiting Gonzales is himself living with autism, has worked with many of these awardees ever since she and parents like her founded PACDLD 15 years ago. Magiting, now a 39-year-old adult, later led a touching opening invocation by reading the Prayer of St. Francis.
The program then segued into a musical number by children with autism. Credit should also go to members of the Kontra Gapi Plus for their efforts in training the children to bang gongs, drums, and other ethnic musical instruments. Notwithstanding their disabilities, they obviously enjoyed the experience of making beautiful and joyful music together.
Beyond providing entertainment, they proved to those present that autistics are also capable of leading productive and creative lives. Despite the seemingly dire prognosis, all isn’t lost. Autism, if detected early, can be alleviated and managed, said Sanchez.
“It takes time for an autistic to be diagnosed,” he said. “In some cases, they don’t get diagnosed until they’re already five years old. But with proper and early intervention, they could lead normal lives. Like Magiting, they can even hold jobs. Depending on the degree of autism, some even marry and have families.”
Images we see in movies of autistics living lonely, isolated lives are most likely stereotypes. But they need to be taught life skills early on for them to be able to help themselves and function as best they can in a supposedly “normal” world.
But unlike other disabilities, which are pretty obvious from an observer’s point of view, autism can be quite tricky to discern. Unlike, say, vision- and hearing-impaired individuals, autistics don’t readily show any tell tale signs of their disability until you get to interact with them or observe them up close.
“They look normal, but if you ask them a question they would sometimes ignore you or answer you differently,” said Sanchez. “But some are like walking encyclopedias. They’re very bright.”
In fact, many autistic children are blessed with beautiful faces and normal physiques, he added. That’s why it’s imperative for society to understand and make allowances for them, as it would for a physically handicapped person.
“Public establishments like malls and restaurants should know how to deal with these individuals, more so because their disabilities are not readily obvious,” said Sanchez, whose office also trains frontline personnel from various retail and service-oriented establishments by conducting regular sensitivity seminars on how to handle customers with autism.
Unfortunately, because of its scarce resources, the government is unable to provide Filipinos with free publicly funded testing centers to help them determine if their children have autism. NCDA, which used to be directly under the Office of the President as mandated by the UN, is now an attached agency of the Department of Social Welfare and Administration.
Apart from being fairly expensive, testing facilities are confined mainly in urban areas of the country. No wonder many children with autism living in remote provinces remain either undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. Many are bullied at school and called all sorts of names.
It took Gonzales a while to determine Magiting’s true condition. He was generally unresponsive and uncommunicative as a two-year-old toddler. He was simply happy to play by himself or watch TV. An earlier visit to the doctor ruled out hearing impairment.
“Experts have yet to pinpoint the definite causes of autism,” she said. “But it is definitely a dysfunction in the brain. It was explained to me that people with autism have everything they need to function normally. The problem is they just can’t seem to readily make a connection.”
Contrary to common perceptions, autistics do have emotions and feelings, she added. They just don’t know how to express these emotions. Most of the time, their anger and frustration stem from the fact that they can’t express themselves.
Gonzales and her husband, who have three other children, consider themselves lucky. When they were having Magiting checked at one of Metro Manila’s leading hospitals, they came across a pediatric neuropsychologist, one of PACDLD’s awardees, who just came home fresh from her studies in Boston.
“We brought Magiting to her,” said Gonzales. “She did a series of tests on him, and it was confirmed. He was already four years old when we finally learned that he has autism.”
Had they not known, she said, they wouldn’t have been able to help him sooner. She and her husband did what was necessary, including the need for Magiting to undergo speech therapy and early intervention measures before going to school.
As a parent and a mother, Gonzales initially felt at a loss, as she tried to make sense of the doctor’s findings. More than blame herself for her son’s condition, her initial reaction was “how did I end up having a child like this.” But she had little time to brood or feel sorry for herself. She soon did what needed to be done.
“It was good that we were able to talk with professionals who tried to explain to us what was wrong with our boy and why,” said Gonzales. “Eventually, you have to accept it and decide what to do. It wasn’t easy, of course. You have to study also. Before you know it, as a parent of a child with autism, you end up learning yourself.”