The government is now emphasizing skill development for people with autism so that they can get job opportunities and contribute to society
Diagnosed with autism at only two-and-a-half years of age, Seeam Ul Karim, now 27 years old, is an active person who is employed at a duty free shop in Dhaka managed by Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation.
While the journey is heavily crucial for most people with autism, it was his mother’s year long journey and dedication that has made it possible.
The mother, who was an employee of Unicef at the time, had to spend Tk1,800 every day for Seeam’s therapy. When it came to education, she visited one school after another, but none of the first 30 schools got him admitted as he was a child with special needs.
The mother somehow managed to get him admitted in an English medium school, where Seeam completed his A Level exam.
“Because of my own struggles, I was looking for something that might help to give children with special needs a normal life. I have seen mothers in different forums talking about how crucial it is for them to ensure the extra care their children needed,” said Danny to Dhaka Tribune.
Danny believed that people with autism could be trained to contribute to the economy, but no one believed in her idea.
With an aim of turning such children into gems in society and engaging them in income generating activities, Danny sold her land in her village; and with some donations she launched Parents Forum for Differently Able (PFDA) in 2013. Later, she left her Unicef job in 2015.
To achieve her goals, she formed PFDA-Vocational Training Center Trust so that children with special needs could utilize their potentials via learning opportunities through life and livelihood skills.
Livelihood skills are provided to children aged 11-15 years, while people aged between 16 and 20 years are given hands-on training in food processing, packaging, handicraft, gardening and other income generating activities.
So far, 2,980 people with special needs have received services from the organization. Of them, 300 got employment opportunities in institutions like five star hotels, Aarong, Shilpakala Academy, etc.
Mainstreaming autism population
There is no specific data on the autism population in Bangladesh. However, a survey, “Nationwide Survey on Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Bangladesh 2017”, finds that at least 17 per 10,000 babies in Bangladesh have Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Autism is a developmental disability that can have a wide range of symptoms, including difficulty with social interaction and repetitive behavior.
The study by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University Institute of Paediatric Neurodisorder and Autism also states that prevalence of autism in urban areas is 25 per 10,000 children, compared to 14 per 10,000 children in rural areas.
For the last 10 years, the government and some organizations have been working to change the situation of people with autism in Bangladesh. But the intensive care needed for them is still not adequate, said Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed, associate professor of the Department of Child Adolescent and Family Psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health.
“There are therapy centres in each district, but many families prefer keeping their children with special needs at home instead of bringing them to the centres. This mindset of keeping those children at home must change, and families shall be at the forefront to make this happen,” he said.
Mainstreaming them into society via education, work opportunities and extensive care is essential to help them come forward, suggested Ahmed.
Md Anisuzzaman, managing director (additional secretary) at the National Foundation for Development of the Disabled Persons under the Ministry of Social Welfare, said the government had provided job opportunities for 3,500 people with autism through career fairs.
The government is now emphasizing skill development for people with autism so that they can get job opportunities and contribute to society.
“We need to ensure that they live with dignity. As per a proposed project, the government will set up training centres in each district within five years for this purpose. We will set them up in divisional cities within a year,” he said.