Shining a Light on Autism

Shining a Light on Autism April 23, 2016

As a Board member of a national Hindu advocacy organization, I have the opportunity to work closely with people whose advocacy efforts are rooted in the  first of the four-fold spiritual path a Hindu follows: dharma, or justice, fairness and equality.  One of HAF’s objectives is to “solve contemporary problems by applying Hindu philosophy,” with an emphasis on “promoting the Hindu teaching of every person’s inherent divinity regardless of race, religion, caste, gender, age, or sexual orientation, or physical and/or mental disability.” My personal experiences have led me to realize that when we face challenges related to mental or physical abilities, spiritual practice and faith based support structures are essential to rising beyond them – or sometimes, to simply to keep one’s head above water. Through interfaith friends like Gail Katz, I’ve learned that faith based groups like the Jewish organization Kadima exist to provide support and that it is often times directed at parents who are struggling with ways to help their children.  I someday hope to see support for and from Hindus along these lines.

Since April is Autism Awareness/Acceptance Month, my HAF colleague Murali Balaji, in explaining how critical education and empowerment are to erasing stigmas associated with autism, focused on the challenges faced by communities of color. I reached out to my fellow blogger Dilshad Ali, to discover if she knew of any support groups targeted to help with mental health issues and/or autism, and specifically if she knew of anything for and by Hindu Americans – after all, they are just as likely to be impacted by autism as any other group. As shown in a study done in March 2014, “every 1 in 68 children (1 in 42 boys and 1 in 186 girls) are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Autism is one of the fastest growing developmental disorders in the US and on average, costs a family $60,000 a year. As seen in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there are five main points in the diagnostic criteria: persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, restricted or repetitive patterns of behaviors, interests and patterns, symptoms may be present in the early developmental period but may not become fully manifested until social demands exceed limited capacities, symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning, lastly these disturbances are not better explained by intellectual disability or global developmental delay.”  

Dilshad, the Managing Editor of the Muslim channel at patheos.com  writes under the by-line Muslimah Next Door: Faith, Family and Autism – Not Always in That Order. As I expected, she had much to share about the role of faith based groups in providing social services centered around mental health issues. She spoke about American Muslim Health Professionals, (AMHP), a national nonprofit organization “focused on professional development, health education centered around the unique needs of American-Muslims, and advocacy for minorities and underserved communities.” EnabledMuslim, a project of AMHP, is an online community for spiritual and practical support for Muslims with disabilities and their loved ones and provides Muslims with access to relevant information about their situation and the ability to connect and sustain long-lasting relationships with others who have similar experiences. While she did not know if there is any Hindu group, she referred me to someone in India, the inspirational Madhusudan Srinivasa, and his son Abhi, an autistic teen. Srinivasa, an NDTV journalist takes his son everywhere – with the sage advice “when you gotta go, ya gotta go!” – one should take an autistic child to social occasions, and choose not to hide the condition. Dilshad agrees with Srinivasa, that there should be a way to overcome the stigma and stereotypes associated with mental health issues, and parents should seek necessary support from society, along with making sure that the individual impacted gets the proper care. In the face of my disappointment that there are no Hindu or dharmic organizations, she also pointed out that the advantage of being farther behind than similar Christian and Jewish organizations is that we can learn from them.

But lack of Hindu organizations does not indicate a lack of Hindu perspectives on disability and autism support. Fellow Michigander, writer and leader in the Hindu community, Chitra Raman speaks of how humor and Hinduism have helped on her journey as the mother of an autistic child. Scholars in the Hindu community, like Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University, also provide guidance on what we can do to help with mental and physical disability.  Prof. Sharma offers offers clarity on how Hinduism offers a compelling rationale for respect and proper treatment of the disabled:

When I encounter disability, how, from my Hindu perspective, should I react? … the question before me is not, “Why him or her?” It is, “Given the situation, what is my duty? … One can now look to the future, for the doctrine of karma does not end with the proposition that what happens to us is the result of what we have done. It equally advances the proposition that we create our future by how we act now. So, do not wallow in self-pity but strive for a better future, an endeavor in which all others should readily help.”

His perspective is a call to action, and provides impetus to take our dharma, our search for what is just and compassionate, into the realm of serving and support – a way to turn dharma into karma, the yoga of action, through which we can help others.  So what are we waiting for?

Note to readers: If I inadvertently am missing a Hindu organization that is doing work in this space, my apologies. Please leave a comment below, with ways to get in touch and other info such as the organization’s website, and I will update the post and also be in touch!  


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