The phenomenon is worldwide. Autism Awareness Day is observed around the world this Friday, April 2. Tomorrow afternoon at 3pm, the Governor's Office will declare a monthlong Autism Awareness Month for April. With the incidence occurring at a rate of 1 per 100 among children, alarm bells are ringing out loud all over the place.
In a few days, my son will turn 15. He was a “normal” boy for two years until he got the same diagnosis as his older sister: pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise unspecified (PDD:NOS). That is ignoramus-speak for people too proud to acknowledge that they do not know exactly what they have in front of them, or, for bean counters who think there is not enough resource to go around that we might as well lump 1 percent of the population in a grab bag.
Do I sound a little upset about this? Hardly. My son after all has grown up to be efficient in tracking down any address you want around the world on the Internet. Oh, yes, there might be a little raised eyebrow on his simple communication and social skills, his being a teenager who still would not be bothered to put pants on as he struts in the privacy of home, which might be problematic in public places. I remember a SpEd student at Hopwood Junior High who allegedly fondled his privates in public when triggered by a stressful situation.
Are my son and the Hopwood student too dense to learn? They have learned other skills, only that they learned them differently from the standard structured learning of our schools. Here lies one of the obvious lessons that the disability (different-abled) community has added to the learning process: that the five sense-perceptions packaged with every human, singularly or in combination, have the resilience and capacity to learn. The key is focusing on a child's ability (direct or compensating) rather than bewailing an impairment or apologizing for a disability.
The story of the blind girl told to the audience at the last CDD-sponsored gathering who was cautioned by her realism-imbued counselor not to hope too high in her academic pursuit of a law degree and went on to get her JD is too common now to be considered rare and exceptional rather than just an ordinary occurrence. Key in “disabled” on YouTube and view the parade of testimonials.
Sadly, our educational bias on brain function favors abstractions, desired critical thinking and analyses at the expense of being in touch with expressive emotions, intuitive knowledge and getting on top of the graciousness of our body genetics. The whole architecture of our schools is geared toward endless seat-times either in antiseptic cubicles where a compliant mind is encouraged, or warehouse cluttered wall-to-wall covered smorgasboard of a teacher's curriculum design and teaching aides (to impress guests), and students reel in the overkill of visual assaults. Teachers drill their students' memory and see what is retained, assess it and the extent of retention is the measure of one's grade.
Anyone who has ever attended a pre-college forensic event walks away with the impression that we are trying to raise more lawyers! We even have a Youth Congress that allows our youth to practice on how to prance like a politician and speak legalese! No kidding.
My ASD daughter is 18 this year, which means autism has been on my screen for over a decade now. The CNMI Autism Commission formed a year ago with a clear mandate was sent out with plenty of good wishes. Never mind that the requisite muscle was not there. At least, by their act the Legislature reflected a level of awareness not generally shown by state bodies, particularly in the Pacific. There was a dissenting voice on the legislation, ironically from the Public School System, based on a narrowed focus rather than the whole gamut of developmental disability.
Barack Obama's take on developmental disability during the campaign tied health and education policies to what we do with autism. OK. Now that health care reform is in place, we can proceed with the business of autism, particularly the influence of chemical toxicity on our metabolism in the last 60 years.
Meanwhile, ASD as a broad canopy has spawned its own universe, including a burgeoning commercial side that one cannot now move in cyberspace without encountering the hawking of a related service or a product. For those who have not bothered so far to get familiar with autism and have access to the Internet, log in to www.autism-society.org, and take their Autism 101 test. Better yet, for families having babies on Saipan, drop in at the CDAC, the Children's Development Assistance Center, right by the Carolinian Utt and Garapan basketball court. Or give them a call; the CDAC folks would just be glad to assist.
The Commission, V-powered by voluntary effort, is not surprisingly behind in their work and may ask for a year's extension to produce their research and recommendations. But if the support we have given the Autism Commission is any indication, reliance on government-initiated effort is misplaced. Urgency and speed will come when parents raise their voices, and then dip deep into their own pocketbooks to identify what is needed, make the necessary proposals, and then make it happen.
A teacher colleague who has written on mercury-laced thimerosal-preserved multi-vaccines is livid at the protection given vaccine-producing pharmaceuticals from legal liability since the reign of George B the elder. That feeling has intensified with the recent Supreme Court decision that denies vaccines as causing autism altogether, never mind that the director of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta acknowledged a direct link two years ago.
Autism awareness is in order. With its epidemic magnitude, it deserves the same attention as curtailing climate warming and preventing World War III.
Vergara is a regular contributor to the Saipan Tribune's Opinion Section