Each time Abir Alfat Mir goes out, his father Niamul Kabir accompanies him and holds tightly onto his hands from the fear that something might trigger erratic behaviour.
Alfat will turn 12 this month, but he is in need of constant care and control. There are chances that, without a warning, he could run to the middle of a busy road or jump hazardously into an elevator, as an act of play.
When Alfat was only three, his parents learned that he had autism spectrum disorder, commonly known as autism which is, according to doctors, a complex neurodevelopment al disorder.
Alfat's doctors suggested not opposing his behaviour, as disagreement may trigger violence in him.
“What hurts me the most is that he never demands anything, not even chocolate or toys,” said his father Niamul, a businessperson who lives in the city's Hatirpool.
People around Alfat and other children like him often feel annoyed at their behaviour, often finding it “immature and whimsical”. They sometimes make uncalled for comments and behave differently or abusively with such children.
Such ignorant attitude and the lack of awareness and sensitivity it stems from is what holds them back and denies them the opportunity to lead a normal life.
In 2007, the United Nations declared April 2 as World Autism Awareness Day, aiming at improving the quality of life of those with autism. In Bangladesh, different programmes have been organised to mark the day.
Blue lights will be lit outside important government establishments across the country from Monday to Wednesday. The Department of Social Services under the Ministry of Social Welfare will have blue lights on for 15 days, says a press release from the ministry.
The government has formulated two laws for the wellbeing of people with disabilities including those with autism, said Social Welfare Minister Rashed Khan Menon at a press briefing held in the ministry yesterday.
The laws highlight the government's commitment to ensure constitutional rights of people with disabilities, he added.
At present, the country has 44,675 people with autism, according to the ministry.
Autism welfare workers said that those with autism can make their mark in society if they are given the due opportunity. They said that the government needs to reach the grass-roots level to identify people with autism and respond with appropriate intervention.
Doctors have also suggested providing them with proper therapy and training.
In 2013, Alfat's parents were fortunate enough to find the Institute of Paediatric and Neurodisorder and Autism (IPNA) in Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University. Alfat has been a student there since.
An initiative supported by the government, IPNA provides necessary care including therapy and training for autistic children.
At IPNA, teacher Shoma Rani Nandi said they try to provide the children with proper care so that they can lead their daily lives without facing difficulties.
Non-government organisation Society for the Welfare of Autistic Children (SWAC) also provides basic education and counselling for children aged 15 or below. Older children have the opportunity to get vocational training there.
While awareness is slowly increasing, intervention is still limited in society, especially outside Dhaka, believes Mofijul Islam, deputy director of SWAC, adding policymakers have to come up with initiatives that can help identify autism at an early age, with the inclusion of those who live in rural areas. “Late detection may not give expected result,” he said.
He suggested engaging local government bodies, community clinics, and upazila health complexes to provide services in this regard.
According to Helal Uddin Ahmed, associate professor of National Institute of Mental Health, a person with autism faces difficulties in communication, social interaction, and also shows repetitive behaviour.
Some people can be found with mild to moderate forms of autism, while some with a more severe form. Those with severe autism need medication.
Whereas, every person with autism, whether mild or severe, will need lifelong control, care, and of course love.
International Classification of Diseases associated autism with mental health, but a multi-disciplinary team is required to provide treatment for those with autism, said doctor Helal, who is a teacher of child adolescence and family psychiatry.
“Autism is a disorder that needs care and control, not a cure,” he added.
Alfat's father Niamul said that people sometimes misunderstand his son's behaviour and get easily disturbed. There are times when they speak harshly and tell them to “teach him manners”.
Like Alfat, Shazia Jahan, now a student at SWAC, also has autism.
Her father SM Shah Alam said people used to say “bad things” about 11-year old Shazia when she would have difficulty communicating with family members or others.
It wasn't until later that her parents learned from the doctor that she has autism.
Upon the doctor's suggestion, she was enrolled into SWAC. She has been improving since, her father said.
With the gradual spreading of awareness about the disorder, like IPNA and SWAC, a number of organisations are now working to provide care for children with autism.