It seemed like the school of Amir Khan in the Hindi movie Taare Zameen Par where a child with dyslexia got appropriate care for learning when I visited the learning and education centre of the Society for the Welfare of Autistic Children (SWAC) last week at Lalmatia in the city. The effort is hundred times more here, because near one hundred autistic children are getting support with due dedication and affection.
In our society, many families bear the brunt of autistic children in silence. Sufferings start from the denial of accepting their child as autistic. Sometimes it takes much time to be diagnosed and then parents get confused what to do with their beloved child, where to get the appropriate support. Due to the social stigma, lack of proper knowledge about autism and awareness, those children are kept at home years after years. They grow as burden of the family and ultimately are abandoned by the society. Some parents feel so shaky that they are not willing even to admit the fact; don’t bring their child in social gathering which provokes the condition over time.
To address the problem, some enthusiastic and devoted parents of autistic children formed the Society for the Welfare of Autistic Children (SWAC) on February 3, 2000 with the aim of educating and training autistic children to develop to their fullest potential, said Dr Shiraji Munira Choudhury, the honorary principal and consultant of SWAC.
SWAC runs a training and education centre which has a highly structured programme and places importance on individual caring. The student teacher ratio is 1:1. which is essential for autistic children. Emphasis is given on developing communication and social skills, functional education, acceptable behavioural patterns and self help skills.
An Executive Committee constituting mainly of parents with autistic children manages the society. The students' fees, personal donations of members, parents and other generous individuals, fund all activities of SWAC. Dr Munira told that SWAC has received very meager financial support from the government and non-government organizations till date.
Autism is a neuro developmental disorder, which appears typically in a child by the age of three although some characteristic features are present even on first birthday. The core defining features of autism according to the American Psychiatric Association 1994 are:
1. Impairments in socialisation (reciprocal social interaction)
2. Impairments in verbal and non-verbal communication 3. Restrictive and repetitive patterns of behavior or interests
The symptoms and characteristics of autism are of a wide variety of combinations from mild to severe. Each autistic child is an individual. Although autism is defined by a certain set of behaviours, autistic children can exhibit any combination of behaviours in any degree of severity. Other behavioural indicators are:
* Lack of imaginative play
* Attention problems * Repeated body movement (hand flapping, rocking, etc)
* Unusual attachment to objects
* Resistance to any change in routine
* Disruptive, aggressive or self –injurious behaviour (tantrums, streaking, biting, etc.)
* Apparent insensitivity to physical dangers and pain * Lack of eye contact
* Flat facial expression and vocal tone
* Sleep disturbances
Autistic children have uneven skill development with deficits mainly in communication and socialisation. Many autistic children are visual learners. Some autistic children show exceptional skills in art, music, calculation, memory, calendar, audio/video equipment or computers. Many individuals with autism have sensory sensitivities in the five senses of sight, touch, taste, smell and sound.
Most autistic children are physically normal and very good looking with big eyes. This invisible nature of the disability makes it much harder to create awareness and understanding of the condition. The demand of every day life causes overwhelming anxiety, frustration and confusion to autistic children due to their impairments.
There occurs marked variability in the symptoms among the patients and the level of intellectual function may vary from profound mental retardation to the superior range on conventional IQ tests.
Male or female ratio is 3:1 to 4:1. Symptoms are virtually always present before the age of 3 years but autism is often not diagnosed until 2 to 3 years after symptoms appear. Although many causes have been identified for autism the exact cause is still not known. The number of autistic children in the world is increasing everyday.
Autism is not a mental disease. Some autistic children show exceptional skills in areas such as art, music, calculation, memory, calendar, computers or audio/video equipment.
Each autistic child is an individual; therefore, each child's need is unique. Keeping this is mind, and Individual Educational Plan (IEP) is carefully prepared for each student of SWAC based on his/her talents, skills, abilities and limitations. Each student has his/her individual routine. Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is used for those students who do not have speech. This system develops communication and improves behaviour.
SWAC employs Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) as its teaching method. The principles of ABA, such as individualised programming, increasing appropriate skills through the use of positive reinforcement, step by step teaching, consistency and working one to one in a structured environment have been shown to be highly effective in the long term outcome of children with autism.
SWAC staffs are very dedicated, caring, and enthusiastic. All are trained in ABA techniques. A Psychologist, occupational therapist, teacher-in-charge and two supervisors work with a group of 36 teachers.
SWAC started its activities with only 6 students, but reached its present days status after an extensive arduous struggle and personal endeavour. There are 84 students and 44 teachers today in SWAC.
There is no magical cure for autism. Early diagnosis and intensive behavioural intervention can have a positive, significant and lasting impact on autistic children. Autistic children can benefit in a good educational programme. Intensive early intervention in optimal educational settings results in improved outcomes in most young autistic children. Proper evaluation of each child’s strengths and limitations, appropriate training and an autism friendly environment can help them to perform to their maximum potential.
SWAC is located at 6/2, Block B, Lalmatia, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Phone 88-02-8118836, +88-017-11159209. For more information about the organization, visit www.swacbd.org