Shining a Spectrum of Light on Autism

Shining a Spectrum of Light on Autism

Carol has two colleagues with high-functioning ASD (left: David and middle: Chris) to assist with her research projects.

How well do people in Hong Kong understand autism? A depressing answer came in the spring when a young man with autism was arrested by police over the death of an elderly man. His behaviour had sparked suspicion and he was detained for 50 hours and nearly charged with manslaughter before it was learned that he had been at a home for the disabled at the time of the crime.

That unfortunate example illustrates the challenge for Dr Carol To of the Division of Speech and Hearing Sciences and other advocates for individuals with autism in Hong Kong. Dr To has been applying her research to help raise awareness among the public and improve diagnosis and employment opportunities for these individuals.

"Hong Kong people are educated and our economy is well-developed, but people with this invisible disability experience a lot of discrimination," she said.

Dr To has been advocating for them in the media and in the community, giving talks and seminars on autism, and working with the Labour Department on a booklet about employees with autism.

She has also set an example by employing two young men with high-functioning autism as research and technical assistants to do data entry and simple data analysis, and she is encouraging other academics to do the same.

"Individuals with autism like repetitive work and they can manage very detailed and tedious work. They are good at things like library work where they can put things on shelves and remember the numbers. They are also not good at telling lies and they are very loyal employees," she said.

Her understanding of individuals with autism is grounded in her research on the nature of autism. She has studied "theory of mind" skills, which enable people to understand the intentions of others’ speech and behaviour, but which are deficit in individuals with autism, as well as characteristics that are particular to Cantonese speakers with autism. The latter include such things as monotonous intonation and using vocabulary in speech that is based on the more formal written form.

These findings have been used by Dr To to develop standardised assessment tools to help specialists in Hong Kong assess Cantonese-speaking children. Previously, clinicians had to rely on informal tests and their own experience.

Ultimately, she hopes to improve treatment and reduce discrimination against individuals with autism in both Hong Kong and Mainland China. "This is an area people are becoming more aware of and I hope we can raise the profile further," she said.

Dr Carol K.S. TO and team members - Ms Winnie K.Y. CHEUNG and Ms Carmela C.Y. TIN, received the Faculty Knowledge Exchange Award 2015 of the Faculty of Education for 'Serving Individuals with Autism'.