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The Stigma of Autism

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Having your child diagnosed with autism is the first step. But a more important step in her life would be accepting it, and understanding it whole heartedly. Raising a child with autism in a culture where the stigma around it runs high is a very difficult journey. Mental disorders are a stigma in cultures that can prevent the growth of the child and alienate her from the society.

We are constantly afraid to tell the world about her, for the fear of being judged. For the fear of her being judged or being treated differently.

As a parent, you must accept the diagnosis of your child, and as she grows up, help her accept it too. This is important because there can be protection in the label from various forms of bullying, not to mention it helps others around the child understand more about autism.

However, we must realise that labelling a child differently is not an excuse to treat the child differently so. We must remember to never judge a child by a stigmatised view of autistic people. Because stigma runs deep, even in people who are educated about autism. In fact we all buy into the stigma to some degree. The difference is that we won’t realise how negatively we are treating that person.

As parents, you must help your child understand that being autistic is not her fault. It is not something that she should be discriminated against and definitely not something she should keep under wraps because she fears the judgement of others. We can’t change the view of the society but we can definitely change ours. One way to do it, as parents, is to be aware of the stigma, so that it can be avoided in every action and in every step of the way.

Another prominent thing to consider here is to understand that we can’t separate child from autism. You can’t love your child but hate the autism. Think of how it would affect the child. In her mind, if autism is bad and she is autistic, then she is bad. It is like saying, I hate a part of you that isn’t normal or the part that isn’t like me.

Let us not ‘other’ autistic children, let us not teach people to view them differently or be afraid of their condition. And let us never, ever use the word hate to describe the autism in children.

The way to de-stigmatise the disorder has to begin at home. Including special needs in regular classrooms can help reducing the stigma by encouraging interactions. Encouraging parents to seek assessments for ASD, making others sensitive to the fact that the brain of an autistic is wired differently or even focusing on the positive aspects of children in the spectrum, are great ways to help the child. There is also a need to change the language that we use. For example, ‘deficits’ or ‘disability’ could be replaced by ‘special needs’.

British autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen, among others, wants to replace autism spectrum disorder with autism spectrum condition because condition is “less stigmatizing.” It also “reflects that these individuals have not only disabilities which require a medical diagnosis, but also areas of cognitive strength,” they point out. For instance, in Asperger’s Syndrome, a high functioning form of autism, the way to de-stigmatise the disorder was to bring into attention the advantages of the having that condition. It was done by associating brilliant historical figures that had the condition but were not only geniuses but also extremely successful in their lives.

As a result, the condition has been associated with marks of intelligence, talent and technical expertise in some very specific area. So while it may still carry a stigma in some places, it can be reduced.

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