T V SARNGA DHARAN NAMBIAR –
MUSCAT, MARCH 31 –
Are we mature enough, at least to acknowledge that we are really immature? Our collective immaturity is highly conspicuous in our black-and-white notions about the fine line that segregates “the normal and able” from those who are not.
Even today adults and children with special needs — who are disabled intellectually and physically — are treated unfairly, of course with rare exceptions, and in some societies they are even ostracized. The social stigma still lingers.
The most vulnerable are the differently-abled children. We have, to an extent, the know-how and the basic social support structure to deal with children with physical disabilities, but most societies still grope in the dark when it comes to kids such as those with autism spectrum disorder. The parents as well as teachers find it extremely challenging how to manage autistic children.
In the Sultanate, a significant uptrend has been recorded in the number of autistic children over the years. Prevalence of autism among Omani children reached 8.5 out of 10,000 children in 2015 as against 6.4 afflictions among 10,000 children in 2014, as noted by Dr Watfa bint Said al Maamari, the Adviser for Developmental Health of Children at the Sultan Qaboos University Hospital.
The recent increase in autism cases could be partly due to a broadened diagnostic criteria, and greater awareness, but under-diagnosis and under-reporting of cases significantly blur the real scenario. The Sultanate’s health system could only determine just one out of ten cases of autism, as observed by Yahya bin Mohammed al Farisi, the Director of Oman Autism Society, which train autistic children, and other support programmes, and working to raise public awareness about the disability.
According to a 2010 study on the prevalence of ASD among 0–14 -year-old children in the Sultanate, published in the Journal of Autism and Development Disorders, where as many as 113 cases of ASD were detected (indicating prevalence of 1.4 cases per 10,000 children), the majority of autistic children were boys at 75 per cent, and they mostly belonged to low-income families.
Quite shockingly, the study also revealed that teachers in Oman’s mainstream schools are not only clueless about handling autistic children (which is quite normal), but carry grave misconceptions about the disability as well.
Thus the need for shattering the outdated sociocultural programming that creates an unhealthy attitude against autism can’t be overemphasised. Obviously, this requires a lot of awareness programmes.
At a more general level, the annual years of healthy life lost per 100,000 people from autism in Oman has increased by an average 0.4 per cent annually. Among autistic males, the health burden of autism in Oman, as measured by the years of healthy life lost per 100,000 men, peaks at age 10-14, while among girls it peaks at 15-19 years of age, as reported in a study by HealthGrove.
Commendably, the government has been quite responsive, and as of 2015 there were close to 2,600 schools that integrated children with various disabilities including autism. The Ministry of Health is mulling bringing in experts from abroad to enhance autism care in Oman, and also plans to establish more rehabilitation centres partnering with the private sector.
The establishment Alfikriyah school in Muscat three decades ago marked the first step towards offering education and rehabilitation programmes for students with intellectual disability.
The Ministry of Education provides several special education services for children with autism and other challenges.
Beyond these, special centres such as the Specialty Centre for Autism, the Association of Early Intervention for Children with Disability, and the Centre for Special education at ISM offer education and support for autistic children.
However, parents of autistic children are upset with the lack of proper diagnostic and rehabilitation facilities in Oman.
According to Jasmine Kalwani of the Muscat-based Super Group, who is one of the sponsors of Oman Autism Society, and who has been working for the welfare of autistic children, autistic kids are gifted with exceptional artistic abilities. She is working on creating a platform to showcase their creative output. Jasmine feels the greatest challenge in the life of autistic people is to find suitable jobs that can sustain themselves.