May 21, 2011
School of Medicine, Kochi
With the aim to bring attention to autism, a developmental disorder that is usually diagnosed in the first three years of life and affects tens of millions of people worldwide, April 2 was declared World Autism Awareness Day in perpetuity by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007.
This is one of only three official disease-specific United Nations Days.
This year, the celebration was themed Light It Up Blue. Famous monuments from around the world had blue light shone upon them, to pledge support for the cause.
The blue light was symbolic of the complex neurobiological disorder that autism is, inhibiting a person’s ability to communicate and develop social relationships.
Autism affects an estimated total of over 1 million children in India.
“In Kochi, there are no special schools for children with autism,” notes Ms. Gitanjali Natarajan, Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Clinical Psychology, Amrita School of Medicine.
“Parents are left with no choice other than to admit them in schools catering to children with mental retardation. There are children with autism who are undiagnosed, misunderstood and not getting the help they deserve, lack of awareness being the first reason.”
The pioneering Indian parental organization Action for Autism (AFA), founded in 1991, elaborates on Ms. Gitanjali’s concern regarding the difficulties in obtaining an accurate diagnosis.
“A parent may take their child to a pediatrician only to be reassured that their child is just ‘slow’. Unsatisfied, they may visit a psychologist, to be told that their child is ‘mentally subnormal’. Convinced that their child does not fit the typical picture of mental retardation, they may visit a psychiatrist, to be told that their child has attention deficit disorder, and must be put on medication to control hyperactivity. After months of sedation and unsatisfactory progress, they may again begin a cycle of searching for the correct name for their child’s problem …”
A few years ago, an immensely popular Hindi movie – Taaren Zameen Par – highlighted the same problem. The film underscored the message that autistic children are special in their own ways, and respond to love and compassion.
A baby who is a few months old and autistic may be unresponsive to people or may focus intently on one item for an extraordinarily long period of time.
Other early indicators include poor eye contact, no smiling or social responsiveness and excessive lining up of toys or objects.
Even though the exact causes of the disorder are unknown, genetic factors seem to be important.
“There is an urgent need for professionals from each city, to come together, join forces towards providing better direction and facilities which parents of children with autism can avail of,” Ms. Gitanjali Natarajan concludes.