Autistic adults falling between the gaps

Durl Ebanks main

Cayman’s population of adults with autism or other learning disabilities is unknown, but it is likely many are undiagnosed and do not even know they have these disorders. 

Until recently, children with autism had to be diagnosed off island, but in the last few years, more resources have been made available to children with learning disorders and evaluations and diagnoses are now obtainable in Cayman. Adults, however, are still falling through the gaps in the system. 

Brent Holt, senior policy adviser for special educational needs within the Ministry of Education, Training and Employment and an advocate for people with disabilities in Cayman, said there were a lot of barriers and discrimination for adults who have learning disabilities or who have autism, due to a lack of understanding of these disorders. 

There has been a growing awareness in recent years of the support that children with autism or other learning disorders need, but that support is still lacking for many adults, Mr. Holt said. 

“There are a lot of barriers. Employment is a huge one,” he said, adding that, ironically, some of the traits that an autistic person has are exactly the types of traits that make the person a good employee, such as a commitment to task completion. However, it’s often the social aspects of employment that people with learning disabilities have problems with. “We need to sensitise employers,” Mr. Holt said. 

Not even the number of children with learning disabilities is known in Cayman because there is no territory-wide registry to keep track of it. However, Mr. Holt said that by next year, the government hopes to have a registry in place so that the number of children in public and private schools who have been diagnosed with learning disorders will finally be known. 

One adult who has a learning disorder and who has been facing an uphill battle to be employed is Durl Ebanks, a taxi driver and tourism ambassador who takes visitors to Grand Cayman on tours of Grand Cayman, pointing out the local attractions and filling them in on the history of the Island. 

There’s only one problem – Mr. Ebanks finds it difficult to do the written test he needs to take to renew his taxi licence. He knows the material, he just can’t write it down, unless the answers are exactly as they are worded in the book he has studied for the test. He could handle a multiple choice test, he said, but that is not an option for his taxi licence, which he has been told has to done as a written exam. 

Mr. Ebanks has a learning difficulty, which was diagnosed only a few years ago. “Once I knew what it was and why things seemed to be harder for me than for other people, I learned how to overcome it and work through it,” Mr. Ebanks said. He was 21 when he graduated high school, having left Cayman to go to school in the United States. He did not pass his driving test in the US until he was 32, until he took the written test in a state that allowed him to take it as a multiple choice exam. 

Since failing his taxi driver’s test last month and retaking it earlier this month, Mr. Ebanks has been trying to find an advocate to help him state his case. “I just want to be able to do my job,” said Mr. Ebanks, who has taken out a loan to buy his taxi. Without being able to work as a taxi driver, he won’t be able to pay off that loan, he said. He had to retake the test, he said, because he was away from Cayman and had not been able to renew his annual licence. He first took the test 12 years ago. “It’s not that I don’t know the answers now, it’s just I can’t bring them out in that way they want me to in the test,” he said. 

It is estimated, worldwide, that one in between 85 and 100 adults have some form of autism spectrum disorder. According to the 2010 Cayman Islands Census, 0.4 people in 100 have learning disabilities locally. 

“People tend to under-report,” Mr. Holt said. “Up until recently, we have not been very good about diagnosis. For children, we’re now getting good about getting early diagnoses and getting early intervention.” 

However, getting diagnoses for adults is often more difficult, as they don’t have teachers or school nurses who are on the alert for the telltale signs of the disorders. 

“A lot of adults never had the chance to have assessments or don’t know if they have disabilities,” Mr. Holt said. 

He advises adults who are struggling and who think they may have a learning disorder to visit the public hospital and be assessed by a clinical psychologist. 

Mr. Holt hopes that plans for a national disability resources centre will come to fruition. The centre is one of the recommendations made by Planning the Future for Persons with Disabilities in the Cayman Islands, on which he sat.  

This centre would act as a central clearing house for advice and information for people with disabilities and would help them locate the services they need, Mr. Holt said. 

As many adults have never been diagnosed as autistic or as having a learning disability, “it may mean that they get into difficulty with the law, or just drop out of society, are underemployed or unemployed,” Mr. Holt said. 

The only facility in Cayman that caters to adults with intellectual and physical disabilities is the Sunrise Adult Training Centre in West Bay. There, they receive care, training and rehabilitation and several of the people in the centre are employed, though mostly in the private sector, said Shari Smith, director of Sunrise. 

Most of those who attend Sunrise come through from the special needs Lighthouse School, although some come from the community, often from families who have moved to Cayman from overseas where they have not been able to receive the care and attention they need. 

Sunrise does not diagnose individuals, Ms Smith said, instead it works with each individual to cater for their specific needs. This may involve, for example, taking a client who has basic reading skills and ensuring he or she uses those skills to navigate everyday life, like being able to recognise emergency signs or stop signs or identify and use money. 

She said finding employment for people with disabilities had become better, with some companies offering long-term support. “The awareness is definitely getting better … Ideally, we’d like to see it get even better. For example, the largest employer in the Cayman Islands is the public sector and are still very limited in the number of people we have out there,” she said.  

While there are several people working in the private sector who have found their way into jobs through the centre, those are high functioning and very adaptive and rarely, if ever, need further support, Ms Smith said. 

She surmised that the reason the census figures for people with learning disorders in Cayman was lower than the worldwide estimates was because families are still protective of people in their families with special needs and may not want to report it. 

Durl Ebanks

Durl Ebanks says he cannot renew his taxi driver’s licence because of his learning disorder. – PHOTO: FILE
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