ISLAMABAD -  Autism disorder rate in population is rising every year but Pakistan, being a signatory of United Nations (UN) Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), has to take a long walk to cope with this health challenge.

The 9th ‘World Autism Awareness Day’ is being celebrated today, under the theme of ‘Toward Autonomy and Self-Determination’. But awareness in Pakistan has still not reached to the extent where parents breaking the social barriers can bring their children for healthcare.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) covers the mental disorder usually diagnosed in toddlers at the age of 1.5 to 3.5 years. The disabilities in this disorder include unsocial behaviour of patient, lack of communication skills and repetitive actions.

Ghazal Nadeem is one of the team members running the Autism Resource Centre (ARC) in the city Rawalpindi; she is also the mother of two autistic children. “We few mothers facing similar natural tragedy conceived the idea of establishing this centre with an objective to involve this marginalized section in the society,” she said.

According to her, for the last seven years since inception of this centre, number of children facing this disorder is increasing.

The centre working under ‘The Autism Society of Pakistan’ (ASP) has to extend its capacity after experiencing growth of number of children facing this disorder.

Now expanded up to 3 sub-sections, ARC is providing healthcare to the residents of twin cities.

Currently 100 children are enrolled ranging from the age of 3 years to teenage while the centre was initiated with the capacity of 10 persons, said Ghazal. “A large number of parents reach the centre to admit their children and their admission is pending, which shows the rapid growth of disease in the country,” Ghazal said.

According to survey conducted by ASP, previous year 345,600 persons are believed to be suffering from autism.

Pakistan is one of the populous countries in South Asia with more that 40 per cent of the country below age 18. The country not only lacks psychiatry services but the exact number of autism disorder is also unknown.

“In United States, 1 out of 88 child is being diagnosed with this order while the ratio in Pakistan, a developing country is much high,” said Ghazal.

ARC, where healthcare to 70 per cent enrolled children is being provided free of cost, is providing 4 types of therapies to the patients, which includes See Therapy, Occupational therapy, Sensory Therapy and Applied Behaviour Therapy (ABS).

According to Ghazal, these therapies are provided to children to get them also in the mainstream of society and to reduce the gap between them and normal children. “But, there is no infrastructure at state level which helps in accepting these children in the society,” she said.

Ghazal said after the formal education system rejected to absorb autistic students with them, ARC designed its own course of study to keep the education process in acceleration for its students.

Country not only lacks the healthcare centres for autism patients but also the required professional staffs in this specific field are limited.

Though the institutes are providing degrees and diplomas in special education but awareness regarding autism disorder is not very common in the professionals.

In a reported survey done by Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, around 40 per cent professionals were familiar of the term.

Ghazal also told The Nation that ARC not only provides training to professionals joining this field but also involves the mothers by conducting sessions for them.

“This is a helpful exercise for children facing disorder, as they get similar attention in home and at the centre,” she said. “But standard of information regarding treating autistic patient in professionals is alarming,” she added.

Meanwhile, Vice Chancellor (VC) Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (SZABMU) Prof Dr Javed Akram informed The Nation that awareness about autism in the country is very rare.

He said 32 genes in the country have been identified leading to the disorder of autism. And there are very few centres providing healthcare for it.

“In Pakistan 1 out of 65 people are being diagnosed with autism,” he said.

According to him, along with other reasons of growing of disease in the country, one of them is close marriages in the families.

“Blood screening test before marriage between close family relatives can help in reducing the disorder,” he said.

“Marriage within the family couldn’t be declared the sole reason of this growing disorder in Pakistan but it is only the one factor,” he added.

VC also stated that there is no official number of patients in the country; however, it is increasing.

Dr Faiza Badar, a Speech Pathologist at Shifa International Hospital told The Nation though government has taken some initiatives to cope with this health challenge, but it couldn’t be declared ‘sufficient work’.

“Still no authentic study has been conducted by government on this disorder,” she said.

However, in initial stages, government with the collaboration of private sector is working to create awareness among masses regarding autism.

“It is the very first and basic step which will help people in bringing their children to healthcare centres,” she said.

An official of Ministry National Health Services (NHS) said that health after the 18th amendment is a provincial issue; however, a survey is required to get the exact number of patients suffering from autism disorder.