Autism News - Sunday Times

 

Ugly duckling was just on an autistic planet

Source: South China Morning Post, 28 OCT 06
By Katherine Forestier

A young Singaporean offers a rare insight into a condition that went undiagnosed for years despite stunting his emotions and isolating him from society and his family, writes Katherine Forestier.

(click to enlarge)

Eric tells the story of an ugly duckling who could not fit in because he looked too odd. One day, he shared his sorrow with a cat, and admitted to her that he believed he was not a duckling at all, but an alien species.

The cat pounced on the duckling. "You are a duck! Don't give yourself silly labels." That made the duckling angry, especially when she insisted that he was to blame for his deficiencies.

Eric's story, told in his book Mirror Mind, is his own.* For 18 years he struggled through life as the ugly duckling, never fitting in and not knowing why, until he found a word on the Internet that hinted there was a cause for his problems. That word was autism and he immediately recognised the symptoms in himself, later confirmed by a psychiatrist as being within the non-specific autism range. Many high functioning autistics encounter the type of advice preoffered by that cat, the Singaporean writes in Mirror Mind, a series of essays and poems about his life.*

It would have helped him and others if, in his younger days, that explaination for his strange behaviour has been known, he said in an interview during his current visit to Hong Kong and Macau.

Neither his parents nor his teachers sought help for Eric before this. Patricia Nolasco, founder of the Global Village Association in Macau and who is sponsering his visit, said that it was an all too common scenerio.

"He knew that there was something wrong with him", said Ms Nolasco. "His mother thought he was slow and that in time he would grow out of it. He was doing well in school. He relied on his memory and was able to memorise everything."

Because Eric performed well academically and did not throw temper tantrums, teachers failed to raise the alarm. "He was the oddball or nerd who knew everything but could not relate to anyone," she said.

What is unusual about Eric is what has happened since his discovery. "Autism is still with me, but now I know how to militage most of the problems it used to give me," he writes. "I also know how to transform it so that I can tap into its special qualities and abilities for what I seek to do."

He has, in his own words, finally joined the human race, although he said that he still had problems planning and coping with stress.

Parents and teachers are seeing his strengths in sharing sessions he is leading in Hong Kong and Macau.

During his first talk, at West Island School, he gave a rare insight into the autism experience. "The world was happening and I watched without knowing, without thinking, without being able to decide what I could choose," the 23 year old said. "I didn't know things like fashion or the fun teenagers have. But the worst was that I didn't know my mother loved me until recently. I think that is very sad."

His mother, he said, made many sacrifices. She intervened when he was bullied and learnt English* so she could help him with his school work, which he has trouble organising. His father - an electrician who he believes is also autistic - remained aloof and after much family conflict, eventually left.

At school, maths, sciences and reading were easy. But what Eric lacked so badly was a natural instinct for handling emotions.

"Most people understand emotions innately. For me they're like a mathematical equation or physics calculation*, things very removed from reality... When I saw these emotions it was very confusing. It required a lot of courage to let them happen to me, because they were so overwhelming, so alien," he said.

Eric instead had passions for collecting information, for science and computing - he has studied logistics at polytechnic. He kept fish, grew cacti and read profusely, though he said this was without understanding. Today there are no boundaries to his ideas and dreams, which range from plans to study Waldorf education in order to put him more in touch with art and emotions he missed out as a child to working out how mankind could create an ideal society, in space, by 2050.

Eric describes his journey from the isolation of autism. He looks back at the moment he realised he could think for himself after reading a book on positive thinking. "Until then I only understood by reading textbook or copying books. But that day, I decided that I wanted to choose what I liked to study. That choice was the first I made that allowed me to begin making other choices, including to become part of the human family, and to choose to discover emotions."

It was when he was doing military service - he worked on the army's computers - that he felt his journey was completed. "Only when I realised what people were thinking, when I saw the many combinations of emotions, could I actually say I have understood enough to accept what it is like to be human," he said. People in the past who seemed like "decorative art" finally became real to him.

It was also at this time he began to see the world three-dimensionally. "Previously I didn't have a sense of objects in space. It was more like looking at photographs," he said.

Eric has controversial views on how autism should be treated. "One of the things I found is many autistics who don't believe in being cured insist on being autistic," he said. For him, coming to terms with the condition is something that has to come from within themselves.*

Although he does not profess to be an expert in education programmes for autistic children, he offers advice based on his own personal experience.

Autistic children are easily bullied. Teachers, he said, had a large role in controlling that.

Sufferers often found it easier to interact with teachers than children but teaming them up with the right teacher was vital. High functioning autistics tended to be like "tiny adults" rather than children, with strong intellects but unable to relate to other children's emotional worlds. "You can't assign just any teacher to this kind of kid. You have to find the teacher who is most suitable, because the teacher matters so much to the child," he said.

Autistic children often develop specialist interests. Teachers should not force them to be more rounded. "The idea is to work with their special interests and expand them to other subjects," he said; a fascination with trains could lead to exploration of the history of transport or to geography.

He believes that autistics should, where possible, be taught in mainstream schools equipped to cater for all children.*

He is critical of some work done with autistics. As children were taught rules of interaction they could become "artifically normal". "When they are told to play they will play but they may not understand the emotional instincts," he said. They needed to develop a more "complete" version of themselves, with real emotional understanding and self-consciousness. "In my opinion that is the only way to bring autistics out of their shells and into human society," he said.*

It was important to focus on what was undeveloped - for instance, by prompting children to make their own choices. Rebellion should not be seen negatively but as the first step in the ability to choose. "They have to work on their emotions and experience emotions within themselves," he said.

Eric shares a special message*: "Different flowers grow differently. Different flowers are appreciated differently. Good gardeners respect every flower for its unique beauty and seek to bring this out. The same goes for autistic children. It is unrealistic to make them normal, but it is possible to bring out their hidden talents and potential, thereby making them extraordinary."

Eric will take part in more sharing sessions during the week of November 6. For details contact Nicky Clark of West Island School, tel (852) 2819 1962. For information about Eric, visit http://iautistic.com *


Breaking the mould gives shape to hope

Patricia Nolasco, founder of the Global Village Association in Macau, invited Eric to Macau and Hong Kong to raise awareness among parents and teachers about the realities of autism.

Through Eric, she wanted people to realise there were hidden talents in autistic children. "Eric is a great writer. We should not dismiss these children as being odd, that autism is the end of the world. They can do something amazing."

Eric, she said, was unique because he was able to shed so much light on his condition. "I have never come across a person who is autistic but could write and express themselves the way he has done."

Through him, parents and careworkers could know more about the inner world of the autistic person. "That is why I am sponsoring him," said Ms Nolasco, whose association supports minority groups in Macau. She has experience of autistic people as the committee member of an autistic centre there.

Doubts have been raised by some who heard Eric speak as to whether he is autistic, given his power of communication but Ms Nolasco said that he had been diagnosed by a psychiatrist in Singapore and that autism came in many forms.

Nicky Clark, the mother of a child with special needs, is organising the Hong Kong sessions.

"When I heard there was a child diagnosed as autistic who had managed to live with it and become more embraced in the way normal people operate I wanted to share that with others and give them a sense of hope, that there is a way forward," said Ms Clark, office manager of West Island School.

She pointed out that the experiences Eric spoke of were as he perceived them. "That does not make them right or wrong."

It was great, she added, that Eric has managed to get on with life. "It gives me hope as a parent: that anything is possible."


Clarification

I have taken the liberty to comment on or update some information, marked as * in the article. The original text is available here.

1) Mirror Mind is my experience of autism

Some of the poems and material in the book are fictional. My book is meant to express the spirit of autism, not to convey my life story.

2) I do not advocate a cure for autism

I do not advocate curing all autistics, but I would like to help autistics end their suffering. I remember that my body was difficult to control and felt terrible all the time. I derived no joy from events like making friends, strolling in nature and eating good food. My mind could not rest because it was constantly filled with anxiety because of the confusion around me. Now that I made this breakthrough, I seek to bring this joy to other autistics and their loved ones too.

3) Not really Mainstream Education for autistics

I am not an advocate of intergrating autistics with non-autistic peers in mainstream education, unless and until the child with autism is developmentally ready to do so. They may be intregrated with younger children which are closer to their stage of development.

4) Criticism of autism work

The issue I have with most autism work is the belief that behavior is all that matters. Simply train a child to be "normal" and you would make him "normal", or at least improved. Autism is something that requires a deeper understanding of human consciousness, where one awakens the individuality and acceptance of life on Earth within the child. Otherwise, the child grows up into an unhappy adult who finds life a great burden to tolerate.

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