Today, June 18, marks Autistic Pride Day which is about appreciating neurodiversity and accepting the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as a different behavioural state rather than a disease. According to the contemporary research, one out of 88 children is affected by autism, and boys are more susceptible to autism than girls. The research also proclaims that autism is more prevalent in children as compared to Aids, diabetes, cerebral palsy and even cancer. In order to better understand people who are either, autistic or are dealing with autism, I decided to spend time with the only autistic child I know, and a friend who happens to be her mother. “I want my daughter to live a normal and healthy life but every time I take her out to an amusement park or for a walk, she gets frightened. The reason why she does not want to go out and play is because most of the parents do not let their kids play with her, always thinking that she will become violent and attack them if some thing goes against her will.” She admits that there were times when she prayed that the doctor’s diagnosis was flawed or that her child was just slow, however, once she realised how beautiful her child really is, she accepted her situation wholeheartedly. She narrated her experience as a series of highly discouraging lows to moments of exhilarating successes. “She is beautiful and different from the rest of the kids and incredibly responsive towards me. I appreciate her because she is unique in her own way,” she added. It is important to realise that autistic children are mentally healthy. In fact, some of them have a brilliant imagination and creative sense, whereas others can flourish to great academic heights. An autistic child reacts differently to external stimuli because he/she is unable to interact socially. Hence, we’re responsible of socially accommodating them so that they grow up to become healthy individuals. Amina Siddiqui, speech and language therapist and also the Director of Ziauddin College of Speech and Language Therapy, very rightly called the segregation of autistic children as ‘criminal’ as it further deteriorates their confidence. Pakistan is still amongst those countries in which the general population confuses ASD with other disorders such as Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy or mental retardation. It is imperative to state that the symptoms and condition of a child affected by ASD are very different from the other aforementioned disorders and should be addressed immediately. “A child suffering from Autism Spectrum Disorder has definite symptoms, the most important being that an autistic child will never make eye contact. Generally, an 18-month-old child is able to communicate his/her needs by gesturing or pointing in a particular direction, however an autistic child is unable to do so,” said Siddiqui. Now many children are shy and avoid social interaction, however, an autistic child will display unusual behaviour if found in a situation which disturbs his/her routine. The child will either cry uncontrollably or act nervous; however, they remain docile most of the time and do not harm anyone. An autistic child has other impediments also such as difficulty in paying attention and memorising. “Parents should consult a doctor immediately if any of the specified signs are detected in a child. Generally the initial three years of a child’s life are very critical and we call this time period malleable. It is important to bring an autistic child to the doctor during these years because early detection and intervention can control and reverse the damage,” said Siddiqui. A team of neuro-paediatricians, psychologists and speech therapists help in diagnosing children with autism. Once it is established that the child has autism, the therapy, which ranges from medical intervention to behavioural exercises to develop social skills and most importantly speech therapy, are used to treat the child. Speech therapy plays a vital role in the development of an autistic child, who otherwise feels inadequate to communicate effectively. However, Siddiqui highlighted the dearth of qualified speech therapists in Pakistan and warned against the prevalence of unqualified speech therapists and their abundance in the country. “It is important to understand that unqualified practitioners are unable to diagnose the actual cause of the problem and this could result in the loss of the crucial three-year period after which the damage becomes irreversible. The therapy has to be customised to the needs of different patients based on their respective ages and severity of the disorder. A quack is unable to assess that and ruins the life of a child who otherwise could go on to become an active and contributing member of society,” said Siddiqui. It is also time to practise what other civilised societies practise across the globe which calls for developing measures to introduce academic integration. Academic integration works on the principles of letting autistic children mingle with normal children in schools. “So far, very few schools have taken the initiative to build special units for autistic children. CAS and The Learning Tree are proactively taking measures to address this issue and are focusing on academic integration, however, more schools should provide autistic children with a platform to be introduced into mainstream education,” said Siddiqui. Siddiqui said that integrating autistic children in mainstream education depends immensely on the severity scale of the disorder. “Children on the borderline of the scale can be very well integrated into mainstream education system, whereas children at the other extreme might not be able to enjoy that privilege; however, they can certainly still be trained to become contributing members of society,” added Siddiqui. Parents and relatives of children who are affected by autism also play an integral role in developing the social skills of such a child. The therapies will only show results if people around an autistic child are more understanding and spend time with their children by reiterating that it’s normal and healthy to be autistic. It is true that being a parent of an autistic child is more demanding a job, however, the therapies work wonders when the entire family assist the child in abridging the communication and social gap. “Autism should not be regarded as a source of embarrassment. In fact it should be taken as blessing because these children are extremely gifted and to a certain extent all non-autistic people share certain traits of autism,” said a mother of an autistic child. Autism is incurable; however, humane treatment, consideration, therapies and a happy childhood help autistic children to live a complete and meaningful life. The focus of parents, relatives, educationist and counsellors should be on appreciating and accepting the difference rather than changing it.
The writer is a Reporter at Dawn.com