Until recently not many people were aware of autism or thought about it. The subject was a social taboo. No one talked about it and when confronted with an autistic child one did not know how to handle it and tried to ignore it as if they had noticed nothing unusual. The precise cause of autism was then, as indeed even now, not known. It was associated with abnormality, a sign of intellectual retardation, and odd or abnormal behavior.
As a college student, I was not consciously aware of autism and do not recall ever discussing the subject with friends and family. It was only years later when I watched the film Rain Man (1988) that I first became aware of it and was greatly moved by Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of an autistic young man. His odd behavioral traits, existing simultaneously with genius in solving complicated mathematical calculation brought home to us our own blindness and prejudices. It was only then I also learnt that as a child Albert Einstein was also considered autistic. We still do not know what causes autism except that it is a neurological condition present at birth; and some of the common symptoms include problems of communication, difficulties with social interaction, and compulsive behavior. The treatment was in the domain of behavioral sciences in which incentives were used to correct compulsive repetitive behavior.
In the conservative and traditional society of Bangladesh autism also came with stigma; and families would either not speak about it or go on behaving as nothing was the matter. Society added to the misery of the families, especially of the mother of the child. Often the mother was blamed for the birth of such “an abnormal” child; she was made to feel guilty as if she or her actions were somehow responsible for the “misfortune”; and not infrequently the husbands would leave their wives for bearing such a child. Superstition also played its role. The inability of the child to communicate easily or play with other children was believed to be due to the child being possessed by some 'spirit'. Often the only remedy was an amulet supplied the imam of the local mosque, and in extreme cases being thrashed by the members of the family. The tragedy of the family was augmented manifold by societal hypocrisy and ignorance.
We do not have precise data on the number of people with autism, but various estimates, both national and international, suggest as many as 15 percent of the population may suffer from some form of autism or learning disability. In Bangladesh until 2009 there was little recognition of the problem, and scarcely any systematic facilities for detection and treatment of autism. It was at that time that Saima Wazed Hossain took up the cudgel and made it her mission; and since then she has waged a relentless campaign to create awareness, created the Bangladesh National Advisory Committee for Autism and Neurodevelopment Disorders for coordinating the efforts of the government to deal with autism, persuaded a number of hospitals and clinics to establish specialized units for autism, and mobilized large number of nongovernmental organization and volunteers for both providing services and for advocacy. Internationally, she has been invited to join the World Health Organization's Expert Advisory Panel on Mental Health advisory committee; she has sponsored a number of resolutions in the UN to enhance global consciousness; and she has used many platforms to spread her message. Her main focus has been to remove the stigma that afflicts the victims and families of autism and to train families and teachers for early detection of any signs of autism or learning disabilities. Most important of all, she has been ensuring that most public hospitals have specialists in their staff to handle autism. To ensure the sustainability of her work she founded the Shuchona Foundation, a not for profit advocacy and research body. Not least she has persuaded the prime minister (her mother) to use the bully pulpit to create public empathy to end the stigma of autism.
People with autism have difficulties in communicating; they have trouble in articulating their thoughts or conveying their feelings verbally. Social interactions in classroom or in groups are especially difficult for them. Kate Lacour, who specializes in art therapy, wrote: “Art therapy is a unique form of treatment for autism, as it helps mitigate symptom, while also channeling autistic behaviors into an expressive, creative outlet.”They are essentially visual thinkers; and it is now widely recognized that art therapy is one of the most successful methods to overcome their social inhibitions and to give them a medium for self-expression. Autistic persons are highly creative; they have a natural knack for abstract ideas and music. Through art they communicate their thoughts to others– “they think in pictures” – and at the same time comprehend others. Art gives them joy, enables them to explore themselves, and find a world that is their very own. It also helps them to gain confidence and form connection with those around them.
The Unique Glimpses: A Portrait Of Bangladesh Through Their Eyes, compiled and edited by Saima Wazed Hossain, is indeed both a moving and an awe-inspiring journey into the world and minds of autistic children. Saima, a Specialist in School Psychologist, is a strong proponent of art therapy and other creative modes outlets for individuals with autism"; and has over the years collected large number of paintings and drawings by them. There are very few words in the text (in both Bangla and English) and the editor has left it for the paintings to tell their own story. The result is quite unique. The reader (or more precisely the viewer) is transported to another world, full of deep emotions, conveying hopes, aspirations and frustration. There are no sound and voices, but the silence of the painting speaks out loudly and emphatically and pleads with you “not to be their handicap”. They are different, but just like you would want to for yourself, treat them with respect; they have brilliance and creativity locked inside them. All they want is an environment in which they can express themselves and realize their inherent potentials fully.
Saima has organized the painting in a number of separate sections. They include: Nature, the Liberation War, Festivals, Eid, Pahela Baisakh (Bangla New Year) and History and Heritage. In each section we can the world through their eyes, so different and replete with symbolism, ecstasy, joy and pain, and the feeling of being abandoned and not a part of all that is around them. Sometimes it feels they are like flies on the wall, watching and observing us, but too afraid and fragile to come near us or be a part of us. There is a deep sense of loneliness, and of being abandoned. But like Tagore's janakhi or the firefly they live their own lives, with their inner power, and are not beholden to anyone. Browsing through their expressive illustrations, I asked myself: how often we have stopped to think about them and how much have tried to bring them into our midst?
Gauhar Rizvi is a historian, scholar and academic. He is also the International Affairs adviser to the prime minister of Bangladesh.