INSTITUTIONAL support for children with special needs is one hallmark of a civilised society. Pakistan, in particular Sindh, took a further step in that direction with the country’s first autism centre at its special education complex in Karachi. Awareness about autism remains low in our part of the world even though it is globally one of the fastest-growing developmental disabilities, which makes this a much-needed initiative. Studies in the West indicate that since the 1990s, there has been a 172pc increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism. According to studies conducted by a local NGO, there are around 350,000 autistic children in Pakistan — or one in 66, a figure that should be a cause for concern.
Autism spectrum disorder affects how people process information and relate to others. It encompasses a range of symptoms with each case manifesting some or more of them which determines where they lie on the spectrum. The condition can be difficult to diagnose: there is no blood test, brain scan or any other medical test to that end, and doctors must rely on observations of a child’s behaviour to arrive at a diagnosis. By then, families of autistic children have often been through the wringer because they cannot understand his or her behaviour and have no idea how to deal with it. Even more tragically, the absence of early intervention makes autistic individuals more vulnerable to bullying, loneliness, and even to dropping out of school. That prevents them from meeting their full potential, particularly unfortunate because many among those with high-functioning autism have above average intelligence. In Pakistani society, the stigma associated with mental disorders in general exacerbates these difficulties. Given the scale of the problem, medical curriculums should incorporate a thorough understanding of autism, and disability laws must be amended to include the condition. Budget allocation for resources devoted to those with developmental disorders such as autism must be enhanced. The recently opened institute should be but one among many.
Published in Dawn, August 13th, 2017