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Beyond misperceptions against persons with autism: not leaving them behind

Photo credit: Gacchan, Ms. Supaanong Panyasirimongkol (NuNu), Autistic Thai Foundation

An estimated 1 in 160 children could be living with autism.

With the annual World Autism Awareness Day on 2 April approaching, many parts of the world will light up in blue to join in the global observance of the Day.

However, it is all too easy to leave behind persons with autism in development. Their access to individualized support, schools, and decent work continue to show gaps between those without disabilities. Supporting their dignity has been challenging.

Not to leave them behind, dispelling the following three commonly held misperceptions about persons with autism is the first step.

Misperception 1: “Rain Man” myth

The 1988 Oscar-winning film “Rain Man” catapulted persons with autism out of invisibility into public consciousness. Certainly, some autistic savants show these characteristics. They memorize calendars dating back 100 years, mumble to themselves, make repetitive body movements, are constantly restless, unable to look others in the eye, and shy away from associating with others.

But there is much more diversity in their behaviors, intellectual and verbal skills, preference for socializing with others and ability to do so, or self-isolation.  Some persons with autism may have one or more co-occurring conditions, such as intellectual disability, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and physical disabilities, while others do not.

Traditionally, as many as six to seven times more boys and men were diagnosed with autism than girls and women.  But gender-bias in diagnosis have been pointed out, and the ratio is decreasing.

My good friend, Nunu Supaanong, Networking and Collaboration Officer at the Asia-Pacific Development Centre on Disability (APCD) Thailand, has autism and is also a popular public speaker. Nunu is nothing like “Rain Man,” and laughs at this misconception.”  

Misperception 2: Focus on cure and treatment

Autism is often deemed a tragic medical condition for which efforts must be made for treatment and a cure.   Again, Nunu laughs at this notion saying, “No-No! It is something to live with!”

In fact, WHO does not define it as “disease” but as “a range of conditions characterized by some degree of impaired social behaviour, communication and language, and a narrow range of interests and activities that are both unique to the individual and carried out repetitively.”

Dr. Jac Den Houting, a research psychologist and self-advocate with autism, underscores accepting autism as part of human diversity through introducing the term “neurodiversity paradigm,” calling for individualized support and care.

Misperception 3: Unemployability

Due to widely held stereotypes on persons with autism, employability does not seem to be equated with them. However, increasing trends among companies to tap the talents of persons with autism serves as counterevidence.

For example, SAP, a digital and management solutions company operating in 150 countries, started its “Autism at Work Encourages Workplace Neurodiversity” in 2013. Persons with autism have been trained and hired in a whole range of jobs, including as engineers.

Heralbony, a company in Japan run by two brothers of a sibling with autism, harnesses the richness, innovativeness, and out-of-the-box sensitivity that characterize the perceptions and design works by persons with autism, branding them as stylish products, and also the company as a socially good and economically viable business.

As David Savarese, a self-advocate with autism, says, “Inclusion should not be a lottery.” While we should share good practices for emulation, persons with autism should not chance on pockets of success to advance their wellbeing and participation in society.  Society needs a comprehensive set of legislative and systematic, and human support for them.

The Incheon Strategy to ‘Make the Right Real for Persons with Disabilities in Asia and the Pacific - the regional mandate on disability-inclusive development, delineates and supports the inclusion of issues of persons with autism.

“Light it up blue,” is a good way to raise awareness. I hope that there will be a groundswell of numerous actions to generate tangible change beyond the campaign.

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Aiko Akiyama
Social Affairs Officer
Social Development +66 2 288-1234 escap-sdd@un.org
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