With special interest in autism, Nandita D’Souza, a noted developmental and behavioral paediatrician has been working extensively in the field of child and family mental health for about two decades. Synonymous with Sethu in Goa that has reached out to several children and families, she speaks to NT BUZZ laying great emphasis on early intervention which she says is the best intervention, as much can be done if the diagnosis is made early and autism-specific therapy started as soon as possible
Q Why do you feel that besides awareness there is a need to empower girls and women with autism?
When girls and women are armed with knowledge, as well as various skills to deal with challenges, they are better prepared to be successful in life. Self-determination becomes a possible goal.
Q Women are more likely to experience physical, sexual, psychological and economic violence than men. How relevant is this statement when it comes to girls and women who suffer from autism or other disabilities.
It has been clearly shown that the abuse is much more common among people with disability. Disability and female gender both add up to mean increased vulnerability. Since communication difficulties are a hallmark of autism, it is less likely that the abuse will be reported too. In addition, very often people with disabilities like autism are not provided any sexuality and safety education, which again increases the risk of their abuse.
Q Women and girls with disabilities are persistently confronted with barriers to sexual and reproductive health services. How can this be tackled through empowerment and through caregivers like parents and teachers?
First of all, society has to accept that people with disabilities are sexual beings and that sexuality development is a normal and critical part of human development. Education of parents, teachers and other caregivers is crucial. There is a great overlap between social skills, self help skills and sexuality. And just like we teach children how to look after themselves and make friends, we have to teach them about sexuality and safety too.
People with disabilities go through the same stages of sexual development and hence need to be educated by the adults in their lives, mainly parents and teachers. There is very little training available to tackle this area and hence it becomes more difficult for the family and school.
People with autism may not be able to understand verbal communication and hence the information must be imparted through visual strategies. Personal care and hygiene is a good place to start, as this feels less overwhelming. Knowledge about the human body and the changes associated with puberty and growth must be addressed. Safety issues and how to deal with anything that makes the child feel uncomfortable is another very important area. Friendships and relationships including intimacy must be included as part of the education.
Q It is also important to give out information on comprehensive sex education, particularly to women and girls with intellectual disabilities. We’ve had several cases in India where girls with disabilities have been taken advantage of. However, the question here is how do people disseminate such information to them and make them empowered?
Parents and teachers have to educate themselves first. There are some good resources available such as SIECUS and the FLASH curriculum of Seattle & Kings County USA, which is available free of cost. Since people with disability are so different, our approach must be individualised to fit the needs of the each person.
Q Specify the role of parents and teachers in empowering girls with autism.
Parents and teachers play a key, pivotal role. They are responsible for providing the opportunities and guidance, as well as believing in the child. Their belief will motivate them to do their best, which in turn will bring out the best in the child.
Q Also, how different is it to handle boys with autism and what can be done?
Girls and boys are no different from each other. In teaching any child or adult with autism, the magic wand is the use of visual strategies. These individuals learn and understand better by seeing, rather than by hearing. Therefore these strategies must be used in daily life, to teach the child.