The blank stares that reflected in the eyes of many UAE residents when quizzed over their knowledge of autism backed the claim that more needs to be done in raising awareness for this medical condition in the country.
The recently concluded World Autism Day on April 2, which was also marked in Dubai, saw awareness for this developmental condition still at its grassroots level with several members of the public; this was supported further via the results of a spot poll conducted by Emirates 24|7 that indicated only six per cent of the 123 people questioned were aware of autism.
According to local experts, a child is diagnosed with autism every 20 minutes in the UAE and one out of every 110 children is autistic.
Worldwide, the prevalence of autism is one to two for every 1,000 individuals, with numbers on the rise since the 1980s.
Yet, according to our survey, of the eight people who had some knowledge, only two were able to correctly state that many autistic children can grow up to lead relatively independent lives, depending on the level of care and therapy programmes that are put in place to assist those with special needs.
A volunteer who is currently enrolled with Dubai Autism Centre’s month long Dubai-wide Autism Awareness Campaign, dubbed as Autism: “Accept, Embrace & Empower”, said: “It is difficult to even comprehend the mammoth task it is to raise awareness through education.
“Many are simply not interested to know unless they are personally affected by it. But there are others too who patiently listen, ask intelligent questions and most importantly, want to help.”
Numbers on the rise
Dr Ayesha Abdullah, Managing Director of Dubai Healthcare City, said earlier this week: “In the Middle East, the number of autistic children is increasing at an alarming rate.
“Furthermore, despite numerous awareness campaigns, several parents face difficulties in coping with autistic children, while experts on autism are calling for concerted community support to help create an inclusive society for those with the condition.”
She further said: “Understanding the needs of an autistic child is just the beginning of their development.
“For parents, there are many other challenges that appear as the child gets older such as their behaviour, sibling interaction, finding a suitable school, health and hygiene, screenings, vaccinations and nutrition.”
The Dubai Healthcare City (DHCC) lent its support to the UAE’s latest autism campaign organised by Autism Awareness UAE to mark the annual worldwide initiative ‘Light it up Blue’, a global endeavour which saw iconic landmarks lit up in blue around the world to mark World Autism Day.
Some of the most famous landmarks includued Burj Al Arab in Dubai, the Empire State Building in New York and the Sydney Opera House.
DHCC has also joined hands with the Child Early Intervention Medical Centre and Stepping Stones to drive the campaign’s objectives across communities in the UAE.
Dr Hibah Shata, Managing Director and Co-Founder, Child Early Intervention Center, said: “It is important for the community to join hands to help raise awareness on signs of autism and underline the need for early detection, intervention and inclusion in mainstream schools.
“Very often, it gets overlooked that children on the autism spectrum disorder can learn with the right support and be active members of the community.”
The diagnosis and treatment of autism has also received another big boost in Dubai with the recent announcement to create of a comprehensive centre for autism rehabilitation through collaboration between the Community Development Authority and Autism Trust Foundation (ATF), a UK-registered body with boards of directors in the UAE and Canada.
The centre aims to accommodate all the autism cases in Dubai, including the 272 cases that are still on the waiting list at other autism centres, according to a statement, which will also house facilities that include the latest technical equipment run by internationally qualified therapists to help individuals with autism disorders acquire necessary developmental skills and access to education so that they can reach their fullest potential and become well-functioning members in the community.
It will be equipped with the capability to cover all Emirati children affected by autism, besides meeting the requirements of future cases in Dubai.
Khaled Al Kamda, Director General, Community Development Authority (CDA), was quoted as saying: “The establishment of a comprehensive centre of autism rehabilitation is a path breaking achievement considering that needs for autism rehabilitation is growing in Dubai as well as UAE.”
Currently, children who are diagnosed with autism find themselves on a long waiting list to receive a free rehabilitation service.
The other option left before families with such children is to choose costly private services. Apart from the limited number of service providers, at present some of the services are limited to certain age groups. For instance the DECDC serves 0 to 6 year olds only.
According to figures available, it is estimated that currently there are 272 children awaiting rehabilitation therapy in Dubai.
It is also estimated that rehabilitation of each person with autism will cost between Dh30,000 and Dh360,000 per year.
Fahad Bin Al Shaikh Deputy Chairman of Autism Trust Foundation also stated: “The new centre provides a variety of specialised services to deal with autism, including initial and specific diagnoses, behavioural rehabilitation, treatment of speech problems, training for sufferers above 18 years old, in addition to provide training for the families of autism children by experts as well as helping in qualifying local expertise.”
What is autism?
Autism, which is a blanket term covering all forms of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), is a lifelong condition effecting neural development characterised by impaired social interaction, communication, restricted and repetitive behaviour.
The attributes set in before a child reaches the age of three.
The disorder is thought to have a strong genetic basis, although the genetics of autism are complex according to worldwide experts and no factual known reason is singled out as the direct cause of the condition.
Autism and conditions related to mental health continue to attract certain stigmas, especially in the Middle East.
Common signs of autism to watch out for is avoidance of eye contact, flapping hands, spinning, rocking, toe walking, unaware of surroundings, lack of interactions with others and staring at objects, ceiling, etc for a long time.
Experts say the best way to understand an autistic child is to adapt their environment to a more comfortable setting. Take note of triggers that can set off aggressive behaviour and attempt to remove them.
Patience is another key characteristic to hold on to, with family members of autistic children saying that they are always mentally prepared for some troubleshooting moments, which helps ironing things out when a situation does arise.
Calling on the community
Those who want to assist can participate in the “Road to Recovery” campaign organised by the Ministry of Health in cooperation with Dubai Autism Centre (DAC), Community Development Authority, UAE Red Crescent and the Dubai Healthcare City.
As part of the global awareness campaign on autism, Dubai will once again play host to its annual walkathon as an initiative of Autism Awareness UAE.
‘Walk for Autism 2012’ will be held on 21 April 2012 at Zabeel Park, featuring activities led by various healthcare organisations and inviting the participation of autistic children and their families.
Other events will also be conducted over the month, which includes a volunteer drive across Dubai Malls, organised by the DAC.
This year there will be DAC stands, painting exhibition (art work from students at DAC on sale) and a videoke sing-along corner in four major malls across the emirate.
DAC is also looking for more volunteers to help man the DAC stand, selling DAC merchandise, interact with shoppers, offer flyers and brief them about autism and the centre. For information and to volunteer, call: 04 3986862
[Image via Shutterstock]