Monday, June 6, 2016

"It's a long story..."

Osman and I have decided that Mo will come back home to Singapore next year after he finishes school in England. I apprised him of this plan during his May holidays. Mo on the other hand, wants to go to college in England as according to him his classmates are going to go. However, I told him that we, his parents, felt strongly it was in his best interest to return to Singapore, find a job and settle down. The idea of a job  in Singapore was the carrot that I dangled knowing full well that Mo would acquiesce fairly easily  to the plan. And he did, so much so that he declared with pride, "my friends at school are going to be so jealous because I will have a job". When I reminded him that they too would eventually find jobs he declared "yes I suppose so, but first they will go to college. I can't go to college because I am more special needs than they are". Taken aback by his comment I probed Mo for an explanation to which he replied, "it is a long story", meaning I had reached a dead end and was not going to get my answer. That same day he told me,"I am tired of being surrounded by autistic people, I want to be around normal people". This is not the first time he has said that. In fact a couple of days ago he saw two blind people in the London underground and declared, " I don't like seeing people with disabilities, they give me the creeps"!

Mo's attitude pained me immensely. I began to question myself and my upbringing of my children. I, who claimed to be an advocate of special needs individuals, could I possibly have passed down the 'wrong' ideals to Mo? If not consciously then sub-consciously had I or Osman  encouraged a dichotomy between 'normal' vs' 'abnormal' in his mind? Looking for answers, I rewound my memory over the past 15 years and all I could remember telling my kids was that there is no such thing as 'normal'. Everyone is 'different' and we all have our challenges. Differences must be celebrated and not scorned. So then what had gone wrong and where?!

As I teetered between reflection and hypothesis I came to a possible conclusion. Although Mo gives the impression that he has a significant degree of awareness about his diagnosis of autism, he openly says that he is autistic,  I don't think he sees himself as any different from stereotypical's. He acknowledges that he has difficulties  but as far as his self concept is concerned he believes that he is no different from his brothers. Does it mean that he is in self denial? Or is it that he is not able to perceive himself from another's point of view? Whatever the case should it be viewed as a good thing or not such a good thing? Also could this be a contributory factor to his attitude towards people with disabilities?

Here are my thoughts on the above. Given that Mo is autistic, there is a very high probability that he lacks self awareness and by default is in denial. His teachers are working on his self concept but it is a goal in progress. I believe it is critical for him to accept that he is different, embrace the difference and celebrate it. Once he is able to do that he may become more accepting of others who are different from the norm by virtue of association or empathy.

I believe that Mo's early schooling has a big role to play in his perception of himself and others. Till grade 6 he was in mainstream school where he was pretty much the only special needs child in his class. Inclusion benefitted him in many ways but the lack of exposure to kids similar to him probably created a template of what is normal and not normal in his mind. Henceforth he began to categorise people into normal and abnormal categories based on that template. Had he mixed with both stereotypical and special kids in his primary years this distinction may not have been so black and white. He may have grown up accepting the differences as a norm rather than having to label them.

It boils down to the fact that exposure and integration are key elements to an inclusive society for individual with special needs. If our children grow up amongst individuals who are different physically or mentally, they will embrace the differences and not shun them. Then labels for mental illnesses and disabilities will perhaps only be use to define  symptoms and not a be viewed as a stigma. Just my thoughts on the subject...

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