Autism affects over 700, 000 people in the UK which roughly equates to more than 1 in 100 people, according to figures released by the NHS. The surprisingly high statistic is an indication of how many ASD sufferers there are in the UK as a whole. However, the impact that this large number has on the Asian community cannot be ignored. While there are no ethnic specific numbers with regard to autism, it is indubitable that British Asians are affected by the condition, be it as first-hand sufferers or as carers for an autistic family member.
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability which affects a person’s social skills and the way they make sense of the world around them. Autism is a spectrum condition, which means that, while all people with autism share certain difficulties, the condition will affect them in different ways. There are varying degrees; some are able to live relatively independent lives, but others may have additional learning disabilities, which mean they require a lifetime of specialist support.
Autism Awareness Month
Autism is becoming increasingly more common; a 50% increase over a period of five years was recorded in the number of autistic children in 2012. Despite the alarmingly high figures, there are still many persistent myths about the condition that exist within the Asian community. With many Asians ostracising people with the disorder, it is clear that there is a noticeable level condescension in South Asian societies. The reason for which is not certain; it is either due to a sense of snobbery or a general lack of understanding about ASD.
Tom Madders, Head of Campaigns at the National Autistic Society (NAS), said: "Anecdotally, we know that people with autism from ethnic minority backgrounds face huge challenges. More than 100,000 people from black and ethnic minority (BME) communities in the UK are thought to have autism and, in common with many families and people living with the condition, they experience difficulties in accessing the help and support that they need. But individuals and families from BME backgrounds tell us that they face additional difficulties due to cultural and language barriers and the stigma that surrounds autism in some communities".
Pam Malhi, whose 18 year-old daughter is autistic tells us: "Asians are a very judgemental bunch. In our community we end up shunning people’s problems. We end up sweeping everything under the carpet because we don’t want to highlight issues that go against the norm. This makes it so difficult for parents dealing with an autistic child because there is no support system."
Many Asians who are autistic are excluded from community events because the condition is not properly understood. There is a gross misunderstanding about the ASD. Although not a physical disability and so not strikingly obvious, once it is perceived, the individual sufferer is excluded from the community and unfortunately, sometimes becomes the victim of gossip.
But why are Asians so reluctant to provide support to fellow members of the community and instead choose to ostracise people who are in need of support and care?
Pam, who now campaigns to raise awareness about autism in Asian society, continues: "Asians just don’t want to accept something that can be viewed as negative. They don’t want to associate themselves with it. But this just begs the question, what about future generations? We have to start opening discussions now to educate everyone else. What happens when people are autistic in the future, and the next generation don’t know what to do, because they’ve always been taught to stay away from it?"
There are many groups across the UK that have emerged to offer their assistance to families who need it. However, there is a distinct lack of support for autistic Asians, for whom there are no support groups, nor is there any literature available about the condition. Therefore, there is a desperate need for Asians to be educated about autism in order to increase awareness and decrease the stigma.
It is unfortunate that South Asians are unwilling to accept issues which are facing their community directly. A positive, yet small step towards acceptance arrived on our film screens in 2010 in the form of 'My Name is Khan', where the subject was tentatively broached. The film tells the story of a man with Asperger’s, played by Shah Rukh Khan, which brought the issue into the homes of many Asians.
Ultimately, there needs to be a reformation in Asian mentality. Instead of ignoring sensitive subjects, they need to be faced openly. In order to build a stronger community, South Asians must develop a support system for one another.