The number one priority of all parents is to protect and care for their children. So being faced with the possibility that their child may struggle more than others, most parents may refuse to accept it. However, this is doing them a disservice. We might instead accept that some young people are different, and offer them the support they need to succeed.

When I was 18 I volunteered in a small town in Kenya, working with the local community to support differently abled individuals. We advocated for the right to education for everyone and at some points, this was not received too well. Many people did not have the time or patience to hear the stories of these people and that’s when I realised that a negative attitude still exists in many places around the world. 

Since then, I’ve been passionate about supporting disadvantaged individuals with their learning, including in our own community. 

A friend of mine, Hussein,* is a university student like me. He studies Literature and hopes to become a writer. However, he was diagnosed with clinical depression, a condition that is more than feeling down or unhappy for a few days. The feeling is persistent and if severe, can affect day-to-day life. 

“Before I started getting help, I’d feel dreadful every day,” Hussein said. “I didn’t get out of bed, missed school a lot. My parents thought I was just lazy.” 

When his teachers mentioned the idea of something being wrong with him, his parents were quick to refuse. 

“They didn’t want to believe something might be wrong. I’d heard of depression but didn’t see the point in doing anything about it until I came to university.” 

Hussein’s university, like some other institutions in the western world, provides a wellbeing service for students who need help alongside their studies. 

“It was easy to miss things in school but university is very different,” He reflected. “I knew I had to talk to someone otherwise I’d end up failing.” 

Hussein used the wellbeing service and started seeing a counsellor who supported him during his initial mental health assessment and further diagnosis. The counsellor told Hussein about the educational support the university provided throughout his course. 

“They set up a study needs agreement which gave me extra time for assignments and access to other resources I’d need if I missed class. I’m grateful because not many people get that.” 

He was right. The support Hussein received at his university is not readily available in most places. Some colleges and workplaces struggle to recognise the signs of mental health issues, to begin with. I wonder if Hussein’s struggles in secondary school could have been eased with an open mind to know it’s okay to ask for help if needed. 

The earlier that such needs are identified, the sooner a child can get the help they need in order to make the most of their learning. In general, a parent’s attitude and passion have a great influence on their child’s present and future. 

Don’t take it from me but take it from a parent who has been through a long journey in this realm. I had the privilege to speak with Shairose Arnould, a mother whose son was diagnosed early with autism. Today, Shairose helps run a monthly autism support group in the UK for parents with neurodivergent children. 

“He’s 16 now but was diagnosed at the age of two,” Shairose said about her son. “[The paediatrician] said that he had global development delay, and I didn’t really know what that meant. They will talk to us as parents about what’s happening with our children but we don’t really understand so you don’t really know where to get more help. It's a bit tricky.” 

Shairose was in a “phase of denial” when her son was diagnosed.

“I thought, ‘he's only two, how can you say that?’ I think parents will go through a roller coaster of emotions, when they suspect that something's not quite as it should be. They’ll hope that as they get older, they will just catch up. In South Asian communities, especially, you get a lot of people saying, ‘oh, they're just going to catch up’. I think one of my key learnings was that intervention when they're very young is key. And the longer you leave it, the harder it is for the child.”

According to Mind Therapies, waiting times for an autism assessment take one to three years in the UK through the National Health Service. Shairose emphasises the importance of ‘getting that support in place in order for your child to thrive at school’.

“If you don't accept and ask for help, then you won't get help either. I always think that it's our older generation of parents and grandparents who probably have no idea about things like autism, and maybe they were autistic, but they just never knew because it wasn't talked about. And it was just so they never got the right support. Now you're looking at tiny things, actually, when you have that awareness, you kind of see the signs.”

“I would say to any parents potentially reading this to get the intervention in place early on, because that will benefit the child. It's one of those things where you're in denial, but acceptance is the key, because if you don't accept it, how can you help your child?”

I asked Shairose about the monthly support group she helps to run in our community, a place for parents, young adults and anyone that would like some support with autism. 

“We have our parents with children, young children, and some are just getting diagnosed. Some have gotten through primary school and are moving on to secondary school. And then there are others who are out of school, young adults.”

The foundation of pluralistic, dynamic and powerful change in society is education. We are often reminded of this, yet stigmas around different needs and accommodations continue to exist.

“I think it's something that within our community we need to raise awareness,” said Shairose. “When you're socialising with others, we should be able to identify the traits of somebody who's on the spectrum, and not being judgemental, accepting their brains just work differently than everyone else.”

Mental disabilities refer to the disorders that affect a person’s behaviour or emotional state. Examples include mood disorders, autism, ADHD, dyslexia, depression, anxiety and more.

From Shairose and many other members of the Jamat, we can learn the importance of acknowledging and accepting the differences we each have. The recognition of one’s physical impairments, mental health conditions, abilities or neurodiversity can be validating. As members of a community, we have an obligation to educate ourselves for the support of our children, and other members of the Jamat. 


*Hussein is a pseudonym