Autistic children: Gifts of God | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 05, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, April 05, 2012

Autistic children: Gifts of God

The fifth annual World Autism Awareness Day was observed on April 2, 2012. Every year, autism organisations around the world celebrate the day with awareness-raising events. Autism is a life-long developmental disability that manifests itself during the first three years of life. The rate of autism in all regions of the world is high and it has a tremendous impact on children, their families, communities and societies.
"Autism is not limited to a single region or a country; it is a worldwide challenge that requires global action," said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Throughout its history, the United Nations family has promoted the rights and well-being of the disabled, including children with developmental disabilities. In 2008, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities entered into force, reaffirming the fundamental principle of universal human rights for all.
The United Nations General Assembly unanimously declared April 2 as World Autism Awareness Day to highlight the need to help improve the lives of children and adults who suffer from the disorder so they can lead full and meaningful lives. Autism can bring significant economic hardships to families, given the lack of health resources often found in developing countries. The stigmatisation and discrimination associated with these illnesses also remain substantial obstacles to diagnosis and treatment. The absence of autism spectrum disorders and other mental disorders among children from lists of the leading causes of death has contributed to their long-term neglect by both public policy-makers in developing countries, as well as donors.
Autism is a developmental disability that remains with a person for his or her whole life. This condition affects the brain's functions. The first signs usually appear before a child is three years old. People with autism often find social interaction difficult, have problems with verbal and non-verbal communication; demonstrate restrictive and repetitive behavior; have a limited set of interests and activities.
Autism affects girls and boys of all races and in all geographic regions and has a large impact on children, their families, communities and societies. The prevalence is currently rising in many countries around the world. Caring for and educating children and young people with this condition places challenges on health care, education and training programmes. The government is going to count the number of autistic children in Bangladesh, Social Welfare Minister Enamul Haque Mostafa Shaheed said.
A two-day international conference on "Autism spectrum disorders and developmental disabilities in Bangladesh and South Asia" was held in Dhaka on July 25-26, 2011 to raise awareness on the neuro-development disease. Autism is still a neglected disease in Bangladesh and there is no exact statistics on how many children are affected with autism in the country. About 10% of Bangladesh's people are challenged -- of those, 1% is estimated to be autistic, amounting to around 1.5 lakh people. Saima Hossain Putul, the prime minister's daughter and US-licensed school psychologist, said that autism was a growing health concern across the globe as latest US CDC statistics showed that 1 in 88 children are autistic in US.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asked the corporate sector and private organisations to provide jobs for autistic and physically-challenged people to utilise their merit in nation-building activities. The Bangladesh government reserves 1% quota for the disabled and autistic people in all first and second class jobs, including BCS, and 10% in class three and class four jobs for the disabled and orphans, and the their age-limit for entering the services has been extended up to 40 years.
Social stigma poses a major challenge in the early diagnosis of autistic children. Due to lack of understanding of autism, people are negligent about treating autistic children until it is too late. Bangladesh needs to train community healthcare providers on how to understand signs and symptoms of autism. Many parents don't want to face the reality that their children are autistic. They often feel shame to disclose it to others in the early stages. But this does harm to the affected children. They feel uneasy about bringing their autistic children to social gatherings, thinking that it might be disturbing for others. Relatives and family members should show respect to the suffering of such parents.
In Bangladesh, treatment and schooling for autistic children are expensive, which is a burden for a family that has to take care of other children. If our government can take initiatives for a cost- effective programme for autistic children, thousands of families will be grateful. Sometimes autistic girls are in more vulnerable situation than boys. We find that they are often physically abused.
Nothing is going to happen overnight. These children may improve and live a close to normal life if appropriate intervention and proper training are imparted in time. Though we have many organisations in Bangladesh working with various fields of disability, there is hardly any quality institute developed exclusively for the autistic children. The problem further is aggravated with the unavailability of centres to train trainers or teachers to work with autistic children. Similarly, there is no facility available for the training or motivation of parents or caregivers of autistic children.
Parents, relatives and teachers of autistic children should be more patient in raising such special child. We have to develop a strong programme through government and NGO collaboration to ensure a useful methodology to help these autistic children and their families.
If they are properly trained, they can substantially contribute, instead of becoming a burden, to others. They are gifts of God.

The writer is Senior Lecturer, Department of English, ASA University Bangladesh.

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