Mayte Q. finds herself perpetually reliving May 2, Mother’s Day in Spain and the day she was knocked unconscious at Madrid’s Parque Warner when she intervened on behalf of her autistic son. She still can’t quite get her head around the fact that a man “between 40 and 50” verbally abused Jimy, 11, for using his right to the priority line for people with disabilities to access a popular ride at the amusement park. The attacker then turned on her as she approached to explain that his behavior was terrifying her son. Now on anti-depressants, she talks to EL PAÍS to highlight the everyday problems experienced by families of people with an invisible disability such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Mayte’s case, which is now in the courts, is just the tip of the iceberg of an issue that numerous families report daily, according to Ana Vidal, coordinator of the support association ProTGD Autismo. “Every day we receive calls or emails from people telling us about different situations,” she says. “It is no longer the case that people look at them oddly or with pity, now they actually look at them with contempt. And that’s despite the fact that this disability is more common than we think.”
Plena Inclusión Madrid (Full Inclusion Madrid), a federation of 118 organizations of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities to which ProTGD Autismo belongs, explains that epidemiological studies carried out in Europe indicate a prevalence of approximately one case of ASD for every 100 births. In Spain, there are about 450,000 people diagnosed with ASD and an estimated 60,000 in Madrid. Of these, around 6,000 are registered with different associations, such as Mayte, who belongs to ProTGD.
It is no longer the case that people look at them oddly or with pity, now they actually look at them with contemptAna Vidal, coordinator at ProTGD Autismo
The trip to the Warner Park was planned as a break. Mayte lost her mother just a year ago and has since suffered acute emotional instability and lost 15 kilos. Two close friends suggested that she and her son spend the day with them and their own children at the amusement park located in the town of San Martín de la Vega, in the south of the Madrid region, for a change of scene.
Inaugurated in Madrid in 2002, Parque Warner provides a blue wristband for people with disabilities that allows them fast-track access to the rides, meaning that they, and up to three companions, do not have to wait for excessive periods of time. Jimy wanted to go on the Batman ride, a kind of roller coaster, and Mayte’s two friends decided to go with him. But a group of men ticked them off for “jumping the line,” according to Jimy’s mother, who recalls the incident while sitting in a cafeteria in Leganés, clearly still traumatized by the incident. Mayte’s friends explained to the men that they had priority because the child had a disability. “A retard?” one of them scoffed, gesturing with his arms. The taunts were accompanied by laughter and more insults, but went no further.
After getting off the ride, Jimy became obsessed “with the bad man” and when he ran into him again later at another ride, he started screaming uncontrollably. That is the moment Mayte relives over and over in her head, because that’s when she decided to intervene. “Are you the retard’s mother?” the man insisted, and immediately grabbed her by the hair and slammed her to the ground. She scrambled up, faced him and, again, ended up against the pavement, falling face down and losing consciousness.
“I have to thank the park for how they responded,” she says. “First they held the man until the Civil Guard arrived and gave me first aid.” The photographs taken later at the hospital – which she prefers remain unpublished – show a crying woman with a split lip, a bloody nose, black eyes and a deep wound on her forehead. The medical report also states that a cervical injury was detected. When the forensic doctor saw the report, it was decided the assault should be treated as a serious crime and it will be handled by a criminal court instead of getting processed through a fast-track trial.
Families of people with ASD constantly report unsavory scenarios. Jose Manuel Barbé, 35, posted a video on March 22, 2020, that went viral on Twitter in which he described the treatment that both he and his son Adrián, nine, were subjected to by the so-called “balcony cops.” It was during the first wave of the pandemic and, after several days being shut up indoors, they decided to take advantage of the legal allowance for outdoor activity for people with disabilities. Adrián also had a medical certificate explaining that in addition to being autistic, he was hyperactive and needed outdoor exercise. None of their neighbors bothered to ask them why they were out. They simply assumed they were breaking the rules and not only insulted them but wished them dead.
“My son is a big boy and he needs to exercise a lot to burn energy,” says Barbé. “I couldn’t explain the pandemic situation to him because he didn’t understand a thing. He can’t even watch TV for 10 seconds or sit still for just a minute. It was really hard.” Not only did their neighbors insult them on the street, they reported them to the police and a patrol immediately showed up at the park. Barbé showed the police the medical certificate and that was the end of it. “The hard part was that they [the neighbors] were indignant and started shouting at us again, even louder, and insulting us even more. What did they want? To have me arrested in front of my son?”
The difficulties that arose out of the lockdown triggered significant debate within the associations that belong to Plena Inclusión. Some families thought it would be a good idea for those with a disability to wear a special bracelet or T-shirt so that neighbors would be aware of their condition. Others felt such a move would mean further stigmatization of their children. “The problem is social; it’s one of education,” says Vidal. “We have to make autism visible through lectures and talks to make people aware of the characteristics and needs so they are not seen as oddballs.” Perhaps then nicknames such as “retard” might disappear.
"Some have never dealt with a disabled person in their lives"
Mariano Casado, president of Plena Inclusión Madrid, believes that “what is unknown is not accepted” and that authorities should channel more resources into normalizing any type of disability within society, starting at school. It’s a broad challenge but he finds it unbelievable that families still have to deal with being insulted on account of a disability.
José Manuel Barbé says that his son, who struggles to communicate verbally with anyone, has friends of all kinds, “also children without disabilities who happen to be in an ASD classroom. They have learned to deal with him and know what he is like. They play together without any problems.”
According to Casado, it is proof that inclusive education has a positive impact because when the children become adults, they no longer see others as oddballs. “There are people who haven’t had to deal with a person with a disability in their lives and consequently find it difficult to include them,” he says. “Although there will always be some who will never change, even if they were living with them.”
Casado believes the authorities should focus on three key issues: education, leisure and employment. Children with a disability would then go on as adults to normalize a reality that cannot be ignored. Without inclusive education, he believes incidents such as the Parque Warner attack will continue to occur.
English version by Heather Galloway.