World Autism Awareness Day: A Key to Inclusion

autism awareness pakistan

World Autism Awareness Day is observed annually on 2nd April since 2007. It is a global call to action. On this day, the world shines a light on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The day is observed to raise awareness about autism’s diverse presentations and celebrating the unique strengths of autistic individuals across the world. This year we aim to raise our voice for inclusion in education and society, highlight the need for improved support and services, challenge misconceptions and debunk commonly accepted myths.

Understanding ASD

ASD is a developmental condition that affects how a interacts with the world around them. Babies are born with it, and it doesn’t go away as they grow older. However, appropriate support can help autistic individuals live fulfilling lives. Challenges vary from person to person. The domains which are affected are: social communication, sensory processing, and behaviours. Specific symptoms vary greatly for each person, which is why it’s a ‘spectrum’. Some common symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty with social interactions and communication. Autistic individuals often find it difficult to make eye contact, understanding social cues especially if they are nonverbal, or engaging in conversation.
  • Repetitive behaviours. Such as organizing toys and objects, stimming and more.
  • Restricted interests, including routines, rituals, or a strong focus on specific objects or topics. Some autistic individuals love superhero paraphernalia, some love cars or dinosaurs. Their attachment to their favourite topics is often intense.
  • Sensitivities, such as over- or under-sensitivity to sounds, textures, or lights.
  • Poor fine and gross motor skills.

While the list above covers the most common symptoms, there are numerous others that are less common, but are still associated with autism. It’s important to remember that autism is a spectrum. This means that severity and symptoms can vary widely. Some individuals with ASD may require significant support, while others may live relatively independent lives and some may remain undiagnosed.

autism awareness

Prevalence of Autism: Global and Pakistani Context

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the United States 1 in 44 children (8 years old) diagnosed with ASD. This translates to a staggering 2.3% of children aged 8 years old. For four year old children, the figure is 1 in 36 (2.7%). Their report does not account for children who remain undiagnosed. Adults with autism are also not included in this report.

Autism prevalence in Pakistan remains unclear. This is because of a number of factors, including: lack of awareness about autism, parents’ denial, limited research and diagnostic resources. If we estimate that 1-2% of Pakistan’s population may be on the autism spectrum, this means that between two and four million people across the country (diagnosed and undiagnosed). That’s a huge number! Just to give readers a perspective, the population of Dubai (not UAE) is 3.3 million.

Autism Awareness and Fostering Inclusion

World Autism Awareness Day was first established by the United Nations in 2007. It is a crucial platform to for autism communities including autistic individuals, their families, and related professionals. Autism awareness day helps:

  • Increase public understanding.
  • Highlight challenges faced by autistic individuals and their families.
  • Celebrate unique strengths and talents of autistic people.
  • Advocate for inclusion in education, employment, and social settings.

Autism awareness acts as a bridge to inclusion. It breaks down barriers of misconceptions and misunderstandings. When societies learn about the experiences of autistic individuals and their families, it fosters empathy and willingness to nurture a more inclusive environment. This can lead to inclusive classrooms, workplaces, and social spaces where autistic individuals (and everyone else) are welcome.

Dispelling Common Myths 

Many misconceptions surround autism. These ideas are obstacles to understanding, and create challenges. Let’s address some of these myths:

1. Autism is caused by vaccines.

Extensive scientific research has debunked this myth. Vaccines are safe and effective in preventing serious diseases and shouldn’t be avoided.

2. People with autism lack intelligence.

Autism is a neurological difference, not a measure of intelligence. Many autistic individuals possess exceptional skills and talents in various areas.

3. Autistic people are incapable of feeling emotions.

This is just not true. Autistic individuals may express emotions differently but experience them deeply like others.

4. Autism can spread through contact.

That’s a huge fabrication. Autism is not a disease or sickness. People were born with it. They don’t develop it later in life and certainly not through contact.

5. All autistic people are nonverbal.

While some individuals with ASD may be nonverbal, many can communicate effectively through speech, sign language, or alternative communication methods.

6.  Watching too many videos made my child autistic.

Having a lot of screen time is detrimental for a child and of course, it creates problems. But autism is not developed at a later stage, children are born with it.

The Pakistani Perspective on Autism

Pakistan faces an uphill battle with autism awareness. While several organisations work on education and support for autistic individuals, There is still a gaping hole in the fabric.  While there have been efforts to raise awareness about autism in Pakistan, and to provide support to individuals and families, significant challenges remain. These are:

Limited Diagnosis and Support: Access to proper diagnosis and evidence-based support services like therapy and education are scarce. This makes it difficult for autistic individuals to reach their full potential.

Social Stigma: Misconceptions and a lack of understanding about autism can lead to social stigma and isolation for autistic individuals (children and adults) and their families.

Untrained Professionals: Educators and healthcare professionals often lack the training to effectively support autistic individuals in social settings such as classrooms and healthcare settings.

Resource Constraints: Limited funding for research and support programmes further hinders progress. Moreover, many professionals working in the field don’t have access to important resources such as diagnostic tools, authentic testing, or even materials and equipment to provide the best support.

How Autism Awareness Can Further the Cause in Pakistan

To ensure Pakistan is on the right track regarding providing necessary support to autistic individuals and their families, we must change quite a few things. Increased investment in research and education can improve or help gain access to diagnostic tools, develop culturally relevant support programs, and raise public awareness. Community-based initiatives, along with collaboration between government agencies, NGOs, and advocacy groups, are crucial for building a brighter future for autistic Pakistanis.

Furthermore, we must train educators (mainstream schools) to identify and raise red flags for parents so that timely interventions can be provided to children and their families. Even healthcare professionals, such as pediatricians, dentists and other doctors require training to ensure they can provide support to autistic individuals and to create a more inclusive environment. But before all of this, community outreach is the need of the hour. We need to debunk commonly accepted myths (even within the autism communities – specifically parents) and help others go beyond common stereotypes. We can provide platforms to autistic individuals to share their experiences (when and if possible). This allows them to advocate their needs and feel empowered.

Useful Links:

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

World Autism Awareness Day