Autistic or Autism? Doesn't matter. It’s your attitude that counts

Donus Loh, father of two boys, is the Director and Principal Psychologist of W3ave Pte. Ltd., Singapore. He has more than 10 years of clinical work experience and has conducted several workshops and talks in the corporate setting. With that said, he sees parenting as his full-time job.

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20 years ago when I was studying for my undergraduate psychology degree in an Australian university, one of my Professors raised this question: “Should we address sufferers of schizophrenia as: people who suffer from schizophrenia or “schizophrenics”?” As we know, Schizophrenia, is a very serious type of mental disorder, where abnormal social behavior and failure to identify what is “real” is exhibited by the person.

Basically his point was this: If you say a person has schizophrenia, you are being insensitive and equating a person’s character or personality to the symptoms of the disorder.  If instead you say “this person has schizophrenia”, then you are deemed to be politically correct.  That triggered a healthy debate within our classmates.

Personally, it struck a chord with me then, as political correctness was a new idea and seemed like a good one.  Suitably impressed, I applied it when I began working with clients (don’t call them patients… see how it works?), taking some care in addressing people suffering from schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, etc.

That was then.

My elder boy who is turning 6 this year is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Level 1.  In lay man’s term, he has mild form of autism.  Some would say he is mildly autistic.  Autistic versus autism: Is there a difference?  When someone mentions that my son is autistic, does it offend me? Should I feel insulted on behalf of my son?

 

Not one bit!

In recent times, my wife and I have spoken openly about my son’s condition.  When I mention that my son is autistic, some would give me funny looks and a few actually replied (in hushed tone), “You mean to say that your son is suffering from autism”.

Really, it all points to the same thing.  What matters is how I see my son’s disorder; that is my emotional and psychological reaction to it.

As a parent, I will say this:  It hurts all the same whatever term people are using to call the disorder my son has. The hurt does not come from the ‘insensitive’ terms people use, but the sadness and disappointment knowing my child has autism.  The hurt is magnified when society fails to recognize and accept the disorder.

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Society needs to adopt a better attitude

It is society who imposes sensitivity to the terms.  “Oh, you’ll not be respectful if you call them this.” “That’s not nice if you call them that”… While I appreciate the gesture and thoughtfulness, still I beg to ask “Seriously, what’s the difference?”  It might make you feel better to use the politically correct term, but does it make them feel better or cure them if you call them any differently?  I think not.

Speaking for myself, I don’t need sympathy from others.  What I would like is for society to look beyond terms per se.  Just because you use a political correct term, does not help you understand what the disorder is about and the extent of hurt it imposes to the families involved.  You will find that the circumstances that bring about the pains and struggles go beyond the various symptoms the child displays.  They can also include family disputes, emotional trauma for parents, financial issues, education and future care concerns.

In short, being autistic or having autism does not just equate to the symptoms. Start today by reaching out to autistic children, their parents and associations that does related work.

 

According to the Autism Resource Centre of Singapore1, there are about 24,000 people with autism today. Of these, nearly 5,500 are children under the age of 19 years old.  It is estimated that every year 216 new cases of children are diagnosed with autism.

 

This article was contributed by Donus Loh, Director and Principal Psychologist of W3ave Pte. Ltd., Singapore.