Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 6 Issue 22 | June 8, 2007 |

   Cover Story
   Human Rights
   View from the    Bottom
   Dhaka Diary
   Book Review
   New Flicks

   SWM Home


A New Lease of Life

Hana Shams Ahmed

With the help of trained and sensitive teachers, children with autism become more sociable and able to cope with everyday difficulties.

When eight-year-old Rakib (not his real name) repeatedly refused to co-operate with his teachers and failed to improve his behaviour, his teachers suggested taking him away from the mainstream school and getting him admitted into a special school. This was a life-changing piece of advice for the boy. While in the mainstream school Rakib refused to make eye contact with anyone and tore up his books if asked to do a piece of work. Six months later at a handicrafts fair of the third anniversary of the school of the Autism Welfare Foundation (AWF) Rakib was happily doing his bit as an enthusiastic salesperson asking visitors to buy wall hangings and jute puppets, proudly stating that he had made them himself. Rakib who was an outcast at his mainstream school, shying away from all kinds of interactions, has become quite the chatterbox, thanks to the help and compassion from his teachers and the relentless hard work and determination from one person Dr. Rownak Hafiz, the chairperson of the foundation.

Autistic children at the AWF can now make eye contact and converse with strangers, something that was unthinkable before.

According to an estimate by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in the United States, about two to six out of 1000 children are born with autism. It is a developmental disability that results from a disorder in the central nervous system. At one time it used to be one of the most misunderstood disorders, being confused with mental heath disorders. Diagnosis of autism increased in the 1990s when it started to be better understood. There are no statistics available on the number of autistic children in Bangladesh. In most places the disorder is regarded as a mental health problem and no treatment was available until the founding of Society for the Welfare of Autistic Children (SWAC) in April 2000 by a group of parents headed by Dr Rownak Hafiz whose own daughter, 17-year-old Miti, is autistic.

Hafiz first noticed there was something wrong with three-year-old Miti when her teachers at her primary school in YWCA complained that she was not attentive in class. Being a pediatrician herself she knew she had to get Miti's condition diagnosed soon if she wanted to help her. In 1995 Hafiz took her daughter to USA where she was diagnosed with autism at the University of Iowa Medical Hospital and Clinic. Hafiz knew that Miti would get no help in Bangladesh, where there were no schools for autistic children and her condition would only get worse at a mainstream school. So while Miti received special treatment, Hafiz also started training herself on how to handle autistic children. After coming back to Dhaka two years later Hafiz

talked to the teacher of a mainstream school about how Miti could receive special attention while also interacting with normal kids. It didn't work out. Parents of other children in the school were not co-operative and sensitive about Miti's condition and objected to her being there. So Hafiz met up with some more parents of autistic children. Everyone was dealing with a similar sense of helplessness. And together they formed the first special school for autistic children.

Autistic children showing their talent at the third anniversary of the Autism Welfare Foundation.

Autism can be diagnosed in a child when he is about two to three years old. The diagnosis is based on three behavioural impairments or dysfunctions: impaired social interaction, impaired communication, and restricted and repetitive interests and activities. Most autistic children exhibit superior talent in certain activities like being able to calculate as fast as a calculator or remembering patterns very precisely. Although most autistic children can never recover completely, and the road to overcoming the constraints depends on how bad an individual's condition is, with regular interaction and encouragement from parents and teachers the condition can get better and autistic children find it much easier to socialise with regular people.

At AWF, classes are conducted in two batches one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Teachers meet up every other weekend on a Friday to discuss progress and problems. Teachers also meet up with parents of students once a month to discuss what problems they are facing. Most parents fail to understand the sensitivity of the condition and how laborious the improvement process is. Many parents complain why their children are not improving as fast as other children are. The recovery process is also hindered by other people's insensitivity. Teasing and ridiculing from strangers pushes autistic children further into their shell. A mother of an autistic child of the AWF complained that once when she was bringing her child to school in a rickshaw and the child kicked the rickshaw-puller, he asked them to get down and retorted that people should not get on a rickshaw with such 'pagols' (mad people).

With time and perseverance autism can be treated, if not cured completely and many students at the AWF are proof of how well they can do. At the 3rd anniversary programme autistic children sang, danced and performed dramas almost flawlessly in front of hundreds of spectators. It takes a combined effort and empathy from parents, teachers, relatives and the society to help an autistic child come out of his/her shell. It's not an easy task. But from the tireless efforts from Rownak Hafiz and her team at the Autism Welfare Foundation these special children and their parents can dream of a better future.

You can get in touch with AWF at:
Hs-428, Rd-2, Baitul Aman Housing Society
Shyamoli, Dhaka. Phone: 8121759, 01819447233
Photographs: Zahedul I Khan

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007