Society management

Creating an autism-friendly society | The star of the day

“During the lockdown, our teachers offered online lessons, but it was extremely difficult for autistic children to understand the instructions through a screen. Parents also had a lot of difficulty. We tried to support parents in their advising on activities for children while staying in homes,” remarked the Executive Director (ED) of an NGO in Dhaka that runs a school for children with special needs, including autism.

Since 2020, the disruption to learning due to pandemic-related school closures has reversed years of progress and exacerbated education inequalities. Many students with autism have been disproportionately affected due to the disruption of routines and services as well as the supports they rely on, as the chief executive explains. But life for people with autism is not easy even in normal times.

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Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a wide range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication. Each person with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. While some people with autism can live independently, others have severe disabilities and require lifelong care and support.

Like everyone else, people with autism have the right to the best possible state of physical and mental health, education, employment, leisure, etc. But they and their families often face stigma and discrimination in accessing various services. “I was not even allowed to touch a newborn in the family, because my child is autistic. I was also blamed for my child’s autism,” commented a mother.

In Bangladesh, having an autistic child is considered a misfortune for the family. It shouldn’t be. A wide range of interventions can contribute to the development, health, well-being and quality of life of people with autism. Services are still limited in our country, which need to be strengthened and the quality of which needs to be improved. Monitoring child development as part of routine child health care is essential for early diagnosis, which can lead to early evidence-based psychosocial interventions. At present, child development centers in Bangladesh government medical colleges can assess child development. This should be extended to primary level health care facilities to improve diagnosis and referral.

Raising an autistic person requires an understanding of their needs, abilities and learning styles. In Bangladesh, most children with autism attend special schools. There are concerns about the quality of education offered in most of these schools. According to a study titled “Understanding the Education of Children with Autism in Bangladesh: Parents’ Perspective”, social and family stigma, lack of transparency from administrators and insufficiently qualified teachers are some of the challenges faced by parents. autistic students. The paper also recommends that technology be used more creatively to improve learning outcomes.

The goal of the Integrated Disability Special Education Policy (2019) is to ensure that children with neurodevelopmental disabilities in Bangladesh receive appropriate education and life skills, and are ready to integrate into mainstream schools. ordinary schools. In addition, the policy also stresses the importance of regulating special schools. The Neuro-Developmental Disability Protection Trust (NDDP Trust) has been working for people with neuro-developmental disorders, including autism, since its establishment in 2013 by the government. The main objective of NDDP Trust is to promote the quality of life of people with NDDP and to protect their rights. However, we need to do more and be better at implementing existing legal and policy commitments.

There should be more initiatives for capacity building of teachers in special schools for children with autism, and regular monitoring is needed to ensure quality. With the necessary support, more children with autism (whose condition is not serious) could be integrated into the mainstream education system. Teacher training is important. Autistic students could be paired with non-autistic children. This type of initiative has been quite effective in various countries to promote inclusive education. A quality education is crucial for them to succeed in the job market. In addition to improving access to education, parents and caregivers need to be trained to appropriately support people with autism at home. Collaboration between health, education, employment and social services is important.

Sometimes children with autism are brought up to sing and dance at events, and some see this as inclusion. But we need to go beyond token participation and be more sincere to ensure meaningful engagement of people with autism in society.

Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg said: “I have Asperger’s Syndrome and that means I’m sometimes a little different from the norm. And in the right circumstances, being different is a superpower. makes you think differently.” An inclusive society needs all types of thinking to thrive. It is our responsibility to create the “right circumstances” where people with autism can realize their full potential and make a meaningful contribution to society.

Laila Khondkar is an international development worker.