What’s normal? Autism and fitting in

What’s normal? Autism and fitting in

It isn't always obvious if a person has Autism Spectrum Disorder, but recognising traits can help people understand

Anthony (not his real name) is 13 years old and a Form One student at a local secondary school. At times, he loses control of himself and starts hitting people, saying hurtful things or he might burst into tears. Some classmates call him antisocial, but close friends know that he just has Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“Sometimes people like me, with autism, magnify little things to such an extent that we can’t handle it, and we just burst,” says Anthony. A simple prank, like spreading rumours about him and a girl being together, could leave him depressed for days.

Heep Hong Society, a charity that serves children with special educational needs, estimates that there are 9,700 teenagers with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Hong Kong. With 509 secondary schools and 61 special education schools, it is likely that most secondary schools have admitted several autistic students.

Anthony says he prefers to tell close friends about his condition so they will be more understanding. But some friends were so shocked that they wouldn’t speak to him anymore. “Autism isn’t a strange sickness. We’re just a bit different. Some people have the misconception that we are super self-contained and self-centred. Actually, I don’t mind how you talk to me, as long as you respect me,” he says.

Galen Liu, an education psychologist at Heep Hong Society, says people should view those with Autism Spectrum Disorder in the same way that they view people with a stutter: as normal. She says autistic people make loyal friends. What’s needed is some patience and simple communication skills. “They might be very direct and unorganised in their speech, so you can give them a hand now and then. They also don’t like eye contact, but it doesn’t mean they are being impolite. They just think it’s threatening,” says Liu. She says they also find it difficult to understand implicit social rules, so friends should explain those to them.

Queenie Lau, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder, has experienced both cruelty and kindness in Hong Kong

Maggie Cheng May-yuk, whose autistic daughter Queenie Lau Pui-kiu was featured in Young Post earlier this month, says humour is an effective communication tool. One time, Queenie came home with dried curry all over her mouth. Cheng joked that Queenie should order curries of different colours, cracking her daughter up, before telling her about the importance of maintaining a decent appearance. “Humour helps maintain a good relationship,” says Cheng. “It’s also an outlet for me to vent my frustrations.”

Liu says autistic children do not sense pleasure when connecting with other people. “Scans have shown that the brains of autistic children show the same responses when they are looking at humans as when they are looking at furniture,” she says. “Being funny helps them understand that being with people can make them happy while being with a chair won’t.”

Anthony prefers the company of his older brother, who he says is also a quiet person. The brothers go to the same school and play football together. “I feel comfortable around people who are less talkative, and ideally of the same gender,” he says.

As he can’t always control his emotions, he avoids confrontation by avoiding talking altogether. “During recess I often take a stroll down to the tuck shop because I don’t want to speak.” He prefers writing messages on paper and putting them on a friend’s desk instead.

Anthony’s mother Angie (not her real name) says it’s important for parents to help them find ways to cope with their condition, because they won’t actively try new things.

When he was young, Anthony wasn’t interested in reading. Angie made him a special book using words he already knew along with photos of his family. Anthony quickly became fascinated with reading, and was soon reading books that were above his age level. He’s now studying at one of the top secondary schools in his district, and actively participates in verse-speaking, drama and badminton.“You wouldn’t have guessed that he has autism,” says Angie.

Cheng decided to take up the same hobbies as Queenie so that they have more to talk about. Queenie is now 18, and they often have girls’ talk and do their nails together. Cheng has also taken psychology and speech classes to help her daughter’s social interaction. “I don’t think it’s shameful to have an autistic daughter,” she says. “I’m honoured to have Queenie. Because of her my life is rich, and she’s helped me become wiser thanks to all the difficulties we encounter.”

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Let's get along


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