LAHORE: The eleventh “World Autism Awareness Day” was observed on Monday by the civil society, non-government organisations (NGOs) and parents of the affected children, without any major support from the government.
“This is the eleventh World Autism Day and for the first time we are focusing on women and girls suffering from autism, but unfortunately the awareness about one of the fastest growing mental disorders is still very low in Pakistan, as is the availability of treatment facilities,” said Rukhsana Shah, the chairperson of Autism Spectrum Disorders Welfare Trust (ASDWT).
She was addressing a seminar on autism at South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA), which was followed by an awareness walk.
“In rural areas, children with autism are often kept in chains. Superstition and fear, coupled with illiteracy and lack of awareness and treatment facilities, perpetuate cruelty and violence against them,” said Rukhsana, who is a former federal secretary and also the mother of an autistic child.
She highlighted that no accurate data was available for autistic children in Pakistan. However, she said, in such a situation, international indicators may be used to assess the number of children suffering from autism.
“According to the 2017 census, with 55 per cent of the population being under the age of 19, there might as well be at least 1,700,000 children with autism spectrum disorders in Pakistan, with girls accounting for 340,000 of this number,” she added.
Rukhsana appreciated the SAFMA for its support to the cause, saying that in a country like Pakistan where disability was still viewed as a curse and stigma, girls faced triple discrimination on the basis of gender, disability and poverty.
She called upon the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) to revive organisations such as the National Disability Trust to provide funding for new initiatives such as autism awareness campaigns, teacher training and curricula modification in government schools, therapeutic interventions and respite care alternatives.
SAFMA President Imtiaz Alam, LUMS senior faculty member Dr Suleman Shahid and Special Olympics Pakistan Vice President Aneesur Rehman also addressed the seminar.
Speaking at the occasion, SAFMA President Imtiaz Alam said that autism was becoming more common throughout the world; one of 68 children in the United States was suffering from the disorder. He said that autistic children were characterised by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviours. “They have different ways of learning and processing information, and can have unexpected abilities in art, music, computer technology and mechanics,” he said.
Senior Clinical Psychologist of the ASD Welfare, Trust Farah Amanat said that autism could only be cured by training, love and care. She said the ASDWT was providing free training and support to the children suffering from autism and to their parents as well. She elaborated that the symptoms of the disease included difficulty in mixing with other children, insistence on sameness, resistance to changes in routine, inappropriate laughing and giggling, no fear of dangers, little or no eye contact, sustained odd play, apparent insensitivity to pain, echolalia (repeating words or phrases in place of normal language), remaining alone, spinning objects, non-responsive to verbal cues and acting as deaf. She also gave a short overview of the therapies used for curing autism spectrum disorder.
LUMS senior faculty member Dr Suleman Shahid said that they were developing special android applications to help children with autism to learn and communicate. He emphasised the need for parents to take advantage of information technology in educating their children with autism and other developmental disabilities.
Special Olympics Pakistan Vice President Aneesur Rehman stated that sports and physical activities benefited children with developmental disabilities, and explained the role of Special Olympics in helping children with autism.
Dr Shaheen Pasha of the University of Education spoke at length about inclusive education and the need for appropriate legislation in this regard.
Samira, Regional Director of Saahil also spoke about the need to protect children with special needs from abuse and neglect.
Later, members of civil society and the affected parents participated in an Autism Awareness Walk.