Updated: Jun 20, 2021
by Sarah Baig
I remember when I was growing up, I would always hear strangers throw words around casually. Words such as ‘mental’, ‘abnormal’ or ‘stupid’ were used for humor. I would often feel confused as those around me pointed and giggled at their targets. At the age of 7, despite lacking maturity, I just felt ambivalent about what they said, not knowing why or what they mean.
My first friend was Sarah who had Down Syndrome. Our mothers used to sit together whenever we would go to the mosque, and I remember how she would often offer whatever she had, may it be food or toys. She would gently place my hand over it and ask me to join in. I could not see anything different about her and I would always have a great time with her. She had the kindest eyes and I learned so much from her. To this day, I think she was the first person apart from my family who taught me the importance of giving, of sharing and friendship. Unfortunately, she passed away several years ago. I still miss her smile.
While in university, we had a group project where we essentially had to interact with children with autism under the supervision of a psychologist and what tools we had to aid their learning. As I walked in one of the classrooms for the first time, I felt a wave of panic, anxious questions filling my mind. What if I unconsciously hurt them? Would I even be able to do this?
All my fears eased when I sat down. I don’t think I’ve ever seen children working with such greater accuracy or creativity as them. I was in complete awe simply because of how resilient they were. This was reinforced when I had the opportunity to interview mothers with autism. While they faced extreme difficulties, largely due to the stigmatization within their environment, they were extremely proud of their children. I remember their fond words: ‘God does not give such flowers to everyone’, ‘It's made me more empathetic. He’s happy so I’m happy’. One parent told me how her son would be called names. He would at first refuse to say or do anything, but now happily plays in the park. This was an insignificant step in the eyes of others, but a major feat for her.
It is doubly important to address the words and actions of other people who can unknowingly worsen the child and their family’s mental health. Most of them already suffer so much, shouldn’t society be kinder? More helpful? Instead of falling for stereotypes, people should choose to educate themselves, encouraging kindness from those around them. Embrace everyone as they are. It's about time that we de-stigmatize this!