Did you know that autism affects one in 88 children? Did you know that boys are four times more likely than girls to have autism? Did you know that autism is more prevalent in children than AIDS, diabetes, and cancer combined?
Are you aware about autism? Most people aren’t, which is why the United Nations General Assembly declared the month of April as an annual Autism Awareness Month in 2007 and April 2 the World Autism Awareness Day.
During this month, organizations from around the world launch wide scale awareness campaigns that aim to educate the public about this complex brain disorder. Most notably, the international ‘Light it up Blue,’ a campaign that lights a national monument, such as the Empire State Building in New York or Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil, in blue to shine light on Autism.
Egypt has, for the first time, launched its own awareness campaign, marking the country’s first wide-scale efforts dedicated towards autism awareness. The Giza Pyramids were even lit in blue to commemorate the day in line with other countries around the world.
Under the slogan, ‘I’m autistic, give me a chance,’ the Egyptian campaign launched bright and early on April 2 with a two-hour walk starting at 10 a.m. from the headquarters of the Egyptian Autistic Society to Wadi Degla Club where the launching event was held.
At Wadi Degla Club a carnival was held for children with autism that featured various types of entertainment. Helping in raising awareness about autism are the Egyptian Autistic Society’s special guests, including TV host Amr El-Laithy, who will raise awareness through his program Wahed Min El-Nas and singer Hisham Abbass who will act as a media spokesperson. Actress Hend Sabry, who participated in a documentary about autism by the society, was also present at the event. Special guest and parliament member Amr El-Chobaky will hopefully raise the issue of autism in parliament.
For the rest of the month, the Egyptian Autistic Society will be holding workshops across the country to teach participants about early detection, how to intervene, screening tests and behavioral therapy.
The Egyptian Autistic Society
Dahlia Soliman, the founder of the Egyptian Autistic Society, was first introduced to autism disorder in 1994 when she was working for a special needs school.
“What attracted me the most to it was that it was a mystery,” says Soliman.
Wanting to discover more about autism, Soliman completed a master’s degree in autism from Birmingham University. When she came back to Egypt in 1999, she founded the society at only 24 years of age.
“We faced a lot of problems such as lack of awareness on autism, lack of funding, lack of specialized teachers and not enough information [being taught about autism] in medical schools,” she says.
The Egyptian Autistic Society was, and still remains, the only non-profit organization that is focused on the proper treatment and awareness of autism. It serves as a place for parents to turn to for guidance and information about potential treatment approaches, depending on the level that the autistic child is functioning at.
Autism at a glance
Autism is a complex neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain, and its symptoms may range from mild to severe. While individuals with autism may not exhibit obvious symptoms, they often have difficulty communicating with others and relating to the outside world.
The cause of autism is yet to be determined, and a cure for it has not been found yet either. However increased awareness about the disorder leads to early detection of autism, which provides a better chance of early treatment and intervention.
“It’s difficult because even for us, doctors, we have very little information on autism,” says Dr. Sherif Atallah, a psychiatrist who attended the event.
Atallah encountered the disorder for the first time when a patient with high functioning autism came into his practice.
“He would speak, but without making eye contact and he wouldn’t answer questions directed at him,” says Atallah. “I couldn’t quite figure out what he had.”
In 1943, psychologist Leo Kanner was the first one to start documenting cases of children with autism through observing and recording a pattern of symptoms in his paper, ‘Autistic Disturbance of Affective Contact.’
Prior to Kanner’s documentation, children with autism were classified as mentally challenged or emotionally disturbed. However, the psychologist noticed that these children exhibited signs of development and intelligence that does not place them in the above categories.
Inclusion through awareness
Almost 70 years later, there is still very little awareness on autism disorder and how it differentiates from other mental illness. With lack of awareness, there is very little integration into society, whether through education, work, or even day-to-day life.
Although on paper people with autism are supposed to be included, but much like with all other mental and physical disabilities, the reality is from what the law stipulates.
According to the 1975 Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons Act, any type of business that has over 50 employees must include at least five percent of people with physical or mental disabilities as part of their total workforce.
Additionally, the Ministry of Education issued a minstrel decision in April of 2009 to include 10 percent of children with special needs in mainstream schools, with no more than four of those children in each class. Those 10 percent are around 152, 800 child out of an estimated seven million people born with disabilities in Egypt.
However, Maha Emad El-Din, who was representing the Ministry of Health at World Autism Awareness Day, admits that there are not enough trained professionals to deal with people with disabilities in general, let alone with a complex disorder such as autism.
“We need a national center to train people to be able to properly educate or deal with those with autism,” says Emad El-Din. The ministry is also launching its own awareness campaign against the stigma associated with mental illness, according to Emad El-Din.
While there is still a lot to learn about this disorder, the information gathered so far proves that proper treatment and integration is direly needed and that can only occur by raising awareness about autism.
Now that you are aware about autism, will you help educate others? et