Autism Spectrum Disorder commonly known as ASD is a complex childhood neuro developmental disorder. Childhood is a time of rapid brain growth. However certain genetic factors environmental factors may cause a delay in the development of the brain. These may cause certain behavioural communication social difficulties which may manifest in the spectrum of disorders commonly known as autism.
Autism and Sri Lanka
According to world health organisation, by the year of 2020 childhood neuropsychiatric disorders will rise by 50 %. The proportion of autism in males and females is 4:1. A study in the United States of America revealed that 1 out of 68 children are affected with autism. In Sri Lanka according to a study conducted in Colombo 1 out of 93 are born with autism.
Autism is a condition with a significant burden. Its important that this condition is recognised at its earliest stages if possible to minimize its impact. The chance to recover an autistic child is high when the therapy programme is introduced before the age of 2. Currently there is no medical test or diagnostic method to identify autism and it is purely based on clinical observations. Clinical observations consist of a multidisciplinary team including a child psychiatrist, paediatrician, neurologist, psychologist, speech therapist and an occupational therapist.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) states clearly that the rights of each child should be respected and ensured “without discrimination of any kind” (Article 2). Sri Lanka is a country that highly values education. But in Sri Lanka, educational opportunities for children with certain types of disability are seldom, if at all, available. By certain types, especially for those who have autism, the chance of even being included to preschool education is so little. Autistic children are recognised as children with special needs by the government and included under the national policy for disability.
The early childhood programme
The early childhood education programme for children with disabilities is a broad programme initiated by the Office of the Director of Social Services in North Western Province. Centres have been established in Kurunegala and Puttalam Districts with the aim of catering to the special educational needs of children with disabilities. Almost all the pre-school teachers are professionally trained. They have attended various short-term courses in addition to courses held at the National Institute of Education on education for children with disabilities.
Age and the nature of disabilities are not barriers to admission of children to the early childhood education programmes. Children with hearing and visual impairments, and with speech disorders and autistic tendencies aged between 2 to 13 years are admitted to the centres. They are taught here until they are ready for regular school.
The main aim of the early childhood education centre programme is to raise the capacity of children with disabilities for admission to regular school. About 70% of children enter regular school for formal education. 65% continue education in regular school either in a special education unit or in the regular classroom. Children are recommended to regular schools when the teacher at the centre feels the child has reached a satisfactory level both mentally and physically. Most children come from rural families that have no regular income.
Is every child given equal opportunity?
As suggested, the government’s central focus is to provide special training to teachers before being appointed to their respective posts. The success of the training is yet to be found. A proper study of the autistic children, within our school structure, is yet to be implemented. Although the government has proposed such projects for the benefit of ASD children it is very rarely that we see the proper execution of them within society. Unless we break the stigma attached to the word disability how many of the disabled children will be allowed for grade one admission to these schools?
In reality, children on the more severe end of the spectrum are not granted access to educational services. Only a small number of schools accept ASD children. Even provided the grade one admission, these schools do not possess the trained teachers or the special educators (shadows). They’re essential for the education of a child in the autism spectrum.
Accessing services such as special education, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy for children with ASD is essential. As a step to ensure facilitating this, a Bachelor’s degree program in Speech and Language Therapy is ongoing at the Kelaniya University. Locally, these professionals work in hospitals and in private schools. These professionals should be employed at public schools as well to ensure that the majority of the children in such schools are also given the access to the required services.
A little understanding might go a long way
Lastly, when you see a child screaming uncontrollably on the floor of a supermarket, believe it or not you may be seeing autism at its most terrifying exasperating worst. You might want to stop and think about it before you blame the parents for not teaching their children to behave outdoors. Stop before you judge the child for he or she isn’t at fault and neither are the parents. After all, its best not to arrive at conclusions without knowing the situation.
If you’re wondering why the child displayed such an unusual behaviour. The poor soul must have heard or smelled something new, and not quite right. For autistic children noise, sound, smell can trigger a meltdown. The brain can’t process some of these senses and it reaches a status called the stimulus overload. They become fearful for something that we ordinary people can’t see or feel. They feel it a little bit too much.
Of course its easy for us to be judgemental about these things at first glance. But maybe instead of pointing the finger we could try to be a bit more understanding next time.