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Autism: A human condition, not an insult

I have spent 29 years of my life fighting to improve the quality of life of autistic people and their families. I’ve done this as a mother, as a writer of the only book written on the subject in Costa Rica, and as president of the Autismo Costa Rica association.

That’s why I feel I have the authority and moral obligation to demand, on behalf of all people affected by autism, the respect and consideration they deserve.

At Autismo Costa Rica we work hard every day to improve the quality of life of autistic people and their families through education and sensitivity training.

We host workshops, training sessions, conversation forums, seminars, webinars, presentations and movie viewings. We involve the most qualified people available, both Costa Ricans and foreigners. We offer parents free orientation and guidance. We set up support groups. We work directly with departments of psychology, education, and dentistry at a variety of Costa Rican universities. Our objective is to help educate tomorrow’s professionals to not be merely technically excellent, but to be aware and sensitive to the syndrome of autism.

We also run national campaigns to promote sensitivity to this issue on a countrywide scale, through various forms of mass media, sponsored walks, etc.

We travel throughout the country hosting discussions on autism to address the multiple needs of parents and professionals.

We do all this with our own resources. It is our life mission. We want to make sure that parents and professionals do not feel alone knowing that they can count on our support.

But these baby steps we undertake, which clearly should be supported by the government, aren’t. Quite the opposite, we not only get no government support, some members of the government degrade our work, harming the results of all our work to date. They use the term “autism” as if it were an insult, a criticism, demonstrating their lack of understanding and education, which is completely unacceptable given their position as our governors.

Recently, Patricia Mora, legislator for the Broad Font Party, stated in the Costa Rican daily La Naciόn – as a way of deflecting criticism – that lawmakers from her party “aren’t autistic.”

She doesn’t understand that people with autism and their families have to fight each and every day to be included in our society. She doesn’t understand that autistic people are incredible human beings, who, unlike most other people, don’t even know what evil and hypocrisy are. Just because they aren’t able to communicate their desires, needs, pain and feelings in the way the rest of us do, they understand everything and feel everything the same way we all do. Statements like the one made by Mora simply strengthen old stereotypes and myths regarding autistic people that we have spent years trying to bury – as if autistic people live in some isolated world without feelings!

Enough of trying to impress using hurtful language with no knowledge of the harm it does.

I invite Legislator Mora to take our training on the “Specter of Autism” and instead of slinging mud on our work, help us obtain land to build the Integrated Center for Autism, which is such a critical need for Costa Rica. Help us make it possible for parents not to have to wait years for an autism diagnosis. Help us develop educational programs to help autistic people become active members of society. Help us build networks to take care of autistic children, so their mothers can work. Help us develop national sensitivity campaigns and programs to provide financial support to those with scant resources. Help us build homes to house and care for those with autism so that we parents can die with the knowledge that our children will be protected after we’re gone.

For all of these reasons, hundreds of people who support this cause have made their solidarity with our movement known, and together we repudiate in no uncertain terms this nefarious statement from a person who supposedly represents all the people who voted for her as their representative in government. We demand a public apology and a commitment to respect not only those with autism, but also their families and everyone who suffers from any form of disability.

Maribell Madrigal Cisneros is president of Autismo Costa Rica. She was recently featured in a Tico Times story titled, “Súper Mamá: A Costa Rican mother advocates for autism.” Read that story here.

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