MY STORY | I want people to educate themselves enough to be able to notice when someone has autism

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Adele Hand with her son Guillermo and husband Gideon. Adele says autistic kids need to know they are heroes. (Photo: Supplied)
Adele Hand with her son Guillermo and husband Gideon. Adele says autistic kids need to know they are heroes. (Photo: Supplied)

If there is one thing this mom from Newcastle in KZN wants, it’s for people not to feel sorry for her. Instead, she wants to use the unfortunate experience she and her son went through to raise awareness.

With April being World Autism Awareness Month, Adele Hand (33), is sharing the story of how her 11-year-old son, who is living with autism, was left traumatised after someone asked, “Is he not right?” She wants to turn the negative into the positive and encourage people to become more aware and accepting of people on the spectrum.  

“My son, Guillermo, was diagnosed with high-functioning autism shortly after he turned two and has been homeschooled since Grade 3. 

Last month we travelled outside town and it was the first time in a year that he had been in a public space. We stopped at a petrol station in Vryheid and Guillermo wanted to use the bathroom. As we approached the restroom, he caught a whiff of the smell coming from the toilets. People with autism have heightened senses, and he said he couldn’t use the bathroom.

I ran into the garage shop so I could get a cold drink and bag which he could urinate into. But as I was paying, he stormed in completely naked, crying, with his facilitator (who has been with him for over four years) coming in after him. He’d taken off his clothes because he accidentally wet his pants as he couldn’t hold on any longer. 

READ MORE | Western Cape mom: ‘My child has autism and I don’t want to sugar-coat it’

I left everything at the till, and we ran up and down trying to get him to the bathroom to clean him up. Everyone was looking on. Eventually we got him inside but just as we did so, he vomited because of the smell. We got him out and he urinated again, this time next to our car in the parking area, as we stood around him to cover him. People carried on looking at us.  

As he was urinating, he was crying and apologising. The manager then came and asked, ‘Is this child right in his head?’ in front of me, the facilitator and my child. I can take it when stuff is directed at me but saying that in front of my child . . . I was very offended.

I apologised and told him I would come talk to him but he just said, ‘You better clean this’. I got my traumatised son and the facilitator back in the car, then tried to clean the spot where he’d urinated. The guy sitting at the door of the shop with sanitiser came to help but the manager told him to sit down and went to his office. I tried to explain our situation but he wouldn’t allow it.

Guillermo and his facilitator and best friend, Car
Guillermo and his facilitator and best friend, Carmyn Collett. (Photo: Supplied)

Completely taken aback with how he handled it, I wrote to the head office [of the garage company] that night and told them what happened and how upset I was with the way it had been handled. They replied the next day, saying they were sorry and would keep in contact. Nothing has happened since. 

My son refused to urinate again that day and eventually wet the bed. He wet the bed again three nights in a row. He has never peed in the bed before, not even during potty training. 

It really affected him, and I decided to share this not because I want people to feel sorry for me, but because children with autism are extremely sensitive. Teenagers sometimes think people see them as freaks and weirdos. 

READ MORE | Local woman with swim school shares five swimming tips for kids with special needs

I want employers and business owners to use my story as an example to encourage their employees to go on courses, which are run for free by Autism SA, to understand how to ‘spot’ people with a disability and how to treat them with respect.  If you see someone acting differently from what is your normal, don’t immediately judge – have some common sense and do some research. 

High-functioning autism can be seen as a blessing and a curse. A blessing because my son is the most amazing thing on two legs, but a curse because he looks normal, so nobody thinks he has autism and can make their own assumptions about him.

These kids need to know they are heroes.”

What is autism
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterised by challenges with social skills, speech and non-verbal communication and repetitive behaviour. 

According to Autism Speaks, there are several factors that may influence the development of autism, and it is often accompanied by sensory sensitivities and medical issues such as seizures or sleep disorders; gastrointestinal disorders; and mental-health challenges such as anxiety and depression.

“Signs of autism usually appear by age two or three. Some associated development delays can appear even earlier, and often, it can be diagnosed as early as 18 months,” says. 
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