As a part of our October issue's mental health feature, we briefly delved into a few mental health disorders that has been plaguing Malaysians but often is dismissed. In the first part of the feature, we took a general view over mental health as a whole and why it usually goes undiagnosed by many. Following up to that, we looked at depression and what it's all about. For this part, we look at autism and its misconceptions.
Perhaps the most misunderstood and disheartening mental health illness would be autism. Debates amongst professionals are still raging worldwide on the cause of autism and the fact that it can manifest in so many differing ways.
According to the National Autism Society of Malaysia (NUFAM) chairman, Feilina Feisol, autism is a psychological disorder that affects the brain growth of a child and how they perceive things. It’s not a physical thing but their mind is affected. The main challenge for someone with autism is not how to overcome it or how to make the child better but the awareness of the public. Once the public understands autism, it will help those who suffer from it so much more.
“For example, my son is autistic. When he was small, there are so much things he couldn’t stand especially noise and crowds. How does he react to such situations? He makes more noise. But people around him, to a lack of understanding on what an autistic child is, would regard him as someone who is misbehaving.”
It is because of this Feilina feels that awareness should be a key goal to increase amongst Malaysians but there are restrictions.
“The biggest problem we have is that we don’t even have the appropriate data.”
Feilina notes that there is no active tabulation amongst the demographics on the number of children affected by autism in the country. A big challenge comes from the rural population which again due to cultural and religious reasons, refused to admit that their family member might be afflicted with autism.
“What’s worse is that they do not know what autism is, which is why awareness is important," she says.
The other problem in which relates to the main issue within mental healthcare is inadequate professionals to help identify and treat autism.
“In the cities, yes we might be aware. We have Google and anybody with a smart phone can search about it. Even movies are coming out touching on the subject of autism. But within the rural areas, they don’t understand. And even if moves are touching on autism, many depict autism as this very smart, intelligent person like Forrest Gump. They don’t see the trials and tribulations of the parents and how hard it is for the child.”
With all said and done, even if awareness has been raised, the underlying problem of caring for adults with autism poses another challenge for Feilina.
“What happens when the people that cares for an autistic child is gone? That’s one of our biggest challenges.”
With no active tabulation on people suffering from autism, many of their future and subsequent life remains in question. While Feilina notes those from well to do families will get along just fine since their family can afford extended round the clock care, there’s still a need for a solution.
“Whichever way you look at an autistic kid, however low-functioning they are, they are trainable. In Holland, for instance, they have what they call a ‘tulip farm’ run by autistic children. They sell the tulips at the airport and tourists flock in and buy it; making the farm sustainable and in turn this offers purpose and further care for people suffering from autism. That’s what I’m trying to do now. We have land; we have tons of land: it could be an animal farm, it could be plants, it could be flowers.
But nobody has started that yet. So it’s a project which I’m trying very hard to do and for NASOM to make it sustainable. Once we have the blueprint, once we have all the research we have done, corporate will come in because they want to see all the things that happen to the money they put in.”
If you ever need help or someone to talk to, here are some people that would be happy to listen:
(Befrienders 03-79568144 / 03-79568145, Lifeline Association of Malaysia 03-42657995, Malaysian Mental Health Association 03-77825499, National Urgent Response 03-22662222)
First published in Esquire Malaysia, October 2016.