Soc Villegas, autism and the challenges of parenthood

Michael G. Yu
'If I were given the opportunity to offer up what’s left of my life just to guarantee that Timmy will have his... I would do so in one, final heartbeat'

THE AUTHOR WITH WIFE Sharon, Timmy and Kiara when they were still in Manila

MANILA, Philippines – I am embarrassed by the fact that I haven’t studied the RH Bill in its entirety.

Nearly everything that I know about it comes not from the self-motivation to be more informed but rather via more passive means (read: status updates and shared links on Facebook). Even within the confines of the small circle in which I revolve (consisting of family, co-workers and the afore-mentioned handful of FB friends), there are some passionate viewpoints both for and against the bill.

Yes, not knowing enough to make a stand and get my ass off the fence that separates the two sides is a little shameful. But as much as I should ideally dive into the details of a piece of legislation that has the potential to significantly affect our country’s future, I have neither the aptitude nor the time to do so.

More on that later.

Given that damning disclosure of being such an irresponsible citizen of the Republic, if you are expecting either a resounding endorsement for or a biting retort against Father Soc Villegas’ critical remarks versus the RH Bill, you can stop reading now. I simply do not have the authority to do so.

A friend’s status update, though, prompted me to spend a bit more time on the matter for reasons unrelated to the nuances of the bill itself. She seemed quite upset with Father Villegas’ use of the term “autistic” in his speech (she has a child with special needs).

The exact text from his speech follows and is taken verbatim from the blog of his archdiocese in Lingayen, Dagupan (including typos and questionable punctuation):

I know that many of you my dear youth do not believe in the Church anymore. You thank (sic) the Church does not understand. The Church is autistic—“may sariling mundo! The bishops are not listening. The bishops preach from their ivory towers. The bishops are not aware of what the majority of the people undergo. They are distant and unreachable.”

I decided to write about this because I, too, have a kid with special needs.

His name is Timmy and, at nearly 5 years of age, is suspected of having what is called sensory processing disorder, a condition whose symptoms are similar to those of autism. I use the word “suspected” because he hasn’t been formally diagnosed yet.

But it’s obvious that Timmy hasn’t followed the standard developmental path of children his age. Heck, his 2 year old sister is, in certain respects, more advanced than him.

My wife and I realized early on that Timmy requires special attention.

From the moment we noticed something wasn’t right (he had hardly spoken upon hitting the age of two), we have done everything we possibly can to help him snap out of it (oh, if only it were as simple as a click of the fingers to make him, for lack of a better term, “normal”!).

We’ve taken him to the best developmental pediatricians we could find. We’ve enrolled him in hundreds of hours of occupational and speech therapy. We were fortunate that he was accepted into the best special needs school in Manila. And while his doctors, teachers, and therapists — bless their souls — had his best interests in mind and have been very helpful, there just never seemed to be enough intervention.

So, with the heaviest of hearts and yet highest of hopes that we could give him the opportunity to lead a (there’s that word again) “normal” life, my wife and I decided to uproot the family and move to a country where he is more likely to get the most appropriate treatment and education available.

This was a very difficult decision to make because, in my mind, our family life was as perfect as it could be in Manila.

I was working for a good company with outstanding colleagues, in a job that was challenging and fulfilling. My home was 15 minutes away from the office, which afforded me the privilege of spending more time with family.

And in a cruel, ironic twist of fate, I had actually moved back to Manila a couple of years earlier after living abroad just so Timmy could grow up surrounded by his grandparents, titos, titas and cousins (I am a strong believer in the importance of not only the nuclear but extended family).

Because of our relocation, I now spend more than two hours on the road each day to get to and from work. I feel like a prisoner trapped in a crappy, dead-end job. I don’t spend as much time with my family as I would like, and time with extended family has been limited to the occasional internet video call — all this with absolutely no guarantee that what we are doing will actually help Timmy catch up with his peers.

And yet, for the limited odds that these sacrifices could possibly lead to a breakthrough in his development, I believe it was the right thing to do. In the eyes of many, the decision was definitely a no-brainer. For something that has no brain, though, why has the decision given me such an unbearable headache?

Now I hope you understand why I haven’t had the time to work out all the details of the RH Bill.

It’s just that there’s hardly any time to do much else nowadays other than work, commute, eat, sleep and make sure my family is taken care of. Life as a father with a small “f” is just too damn exhausting. I’ve had to give up way too many things, all in the hope that if I persevere to fulfill what’s expected of a dad — much more so a dad who has the responsibility to raise a child with special needs — Timmy will have a fair shot at a good life.

I have been using the word “normal” with the largest quotation marks you could possibly imagine because, for all intents and purposes, autistic children are normal.

They are human.

They can feel, they can understand, they can be made aware of what is going on around them. Maybe not in the way most humans perceive the world; and there may be days when it’s extremely difficult to solicit proper social responses from them, but it has been proven many times: depending on the gravity of the condition and the level of support they get, autistic people can be taught to become functioning members of society.

So, Father Villegas, I respectfully disagree with you that those who are autistic live in their own world, are incapable of listening, are not aware of what the majority of the people undergo, and are distant and unreachable.

And I find it distasteful and hurtful to the point of tears that you think of autistic people in this way.

As a shepherd of the Catholic flock and a Father with a capital “F,” I would have expected that you try to do your best in your job, as well. The least you could have done was to proofread your homily and avoid what may have impeded any progress made towards changing the stereotypes about autism.

I invite you to read your statement again without the word “autistic” in it.

I’m sure you will agree that you could have gotten the same message across without it. But by using the word, you may have perpetuated misconceptions about the condition. What’s worse, you have addressed your scathing viewpoint to your “dear youth,” many of whom now more than likely equate autism with “otherworldliness.”

In your fury against the RH Bill and what you may have thought of as a clever, underhanded affront at President Aquino (who has been insulted in similar fashion), you may have contributed to the social isolation of the growing number of autistic children in our country and set back their chances at true integration into society.

Tell me, Father Villegas: aren’t autistic children members of your “dear youth,” too?

Or do they, in your mind, live too far away in their “own worlds” for you to even care?

Do not get me wrong, Father Villegas, I am not angry. Disillusioned, maybe, but not angry.

I’ve learned that anger siphons off energy too quickly and I need all the strength I can muster for the challenges I face daily as a father in my position. Of all people, though, I would have expected a ranking official of my Church to have compassion for the members of its community.

Compassion is still very much valued in the Church, isn’t it? Because the way you have seemingly typecast autistic people, I’m beginning to have my doubts.

What’s next? Will you try to console me with some silly archaic religious belief that what Timmy is going through is retribution for sins that I have committed in the past?

I don’t really believe that is true; but if such is the case, then forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. Allow me to suffer the consequences for my own actions.

But suffer not the innocent children. Most of all, not my dearest Timmy.

I’m a beat up old clunker who has lived a good many years anyway. If I were given the opportunity to offer up what’s left of my life just to guarantee that Timmy will have his, then with a click of the fingers, I would do so in one, final heartbeat.

We do what we have to do in the name of love, don’t we? You claim that you are lashing out at the RH Bill out of love for the youth of the Philippines. I respect that.

But you sure have a funny way of showing it. –

Michael G. Yu is a loving father and husband who first wrote for Rappler in April. He then joined our Mother’s Day celebration month by writing a tribute to his wife. Michael currently works for a Chinese-owned multinational company in Hong Kong as head of Corporate Human Resources.

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