LifeSpring, a mental health counselling service provider, organised two workshops on autism on August 11 and 12. Titled ‘Autism Workshop for Parents and Professionals’ and held at the KIB Auditorium in Dhaka, LifeSpring invited expert trainers from Australia for the event.
Two autism specialists, Karen Purdie and Renee Townson provided training at the workshop. Karen Purdie is an occupational therapist with over 17 years of experience and has trained professionals across three different continents. Renee Townson is a speech pathologist working in multiple health institutes in Melbourne.
They trained both parents and professionals on how to effectively diagnose and intervene autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Many psychotherapists, psychiatrists, doctors, community workers, teachers and parents attended the workshop, which was followed by two days of consultation, where the therapists met with parents of autistic children and counselled them about treatment options.
We sat down with Karen Purdie and Renee Townson on August 13 to ask them a few quick questions, just before the therapist duo were set to start seeing patients at the LifeSpring office.
WT: Explain a little bit about what you do and also tell us how the workshop turned out.
On this trip the idea was to provide training here in Bangladesh. So, the workshops that we have done this time, one was a day for professionals and one was a day for parents, with the aim to share some really practical skills and knowledge that help support children with autism in their families and communities.
As an occupational therapist working with children with autism, usually I work with people who have autism or some difficulty with their communication, their social skills, and with an area we call sensory processing, where their bodies and brains cope with all the different sensory stimuli that's in the environment. So, my role as an occupational therapist is usually to come up with strategies that help children and young people to do the everyday things they need to do at home and at school despite the challenges that come from sensory processing.
It's a lot more than just working on speech. We are really looking at communication because communication and social skills, as Karen said, are one of the big difficulties that everyone with autism has.
A lot of that is about working with families to help them develop the style that they use to interact with their children to help them communicate most successfully. A lot of the time we find other ways in addition to or instead of speech to communicate, because speech can be very difficult for many people with autism.
WT: Why does it seem that autism is more prevalent compared to that in the recent past? Is this empirically correct or is it just because there is more awareness?
I think there are a couple of different reasons. Definitely one of the things is that there's more awareness. So, I think that some of the children may have been given another diagnosis before. We are getting much better at identifying autism. We have better tools for identifying those kids who are perhaps at the higher end of the spectrum, in terms of their functioning. It's more obvious to detect children who are severe.
But I think there is also the understanding that the prevalence is increasing internationally. So, there's still many questions about the cause of autism. But I think, often there is a general agreement that it is a combination of genetics and environment.
Renee Townson: Certainly since I started my career the prevalence dial has changed significantly. I think there's multiple factors there.
WT:Tell us about your experience in Bangladesh, in terms of what you are seeing in autism treatment. Therapy is not very accessible, as you may have learned and good quality treatment is also not easy to come by. What should the policy makers prioritise?
I haven't had enough experience in Bangladesh to comment on that really. I think based on the trips that I have made and on and people that I have met, there's a lot of great beginnings for providing support for children and families. Of course, the population is very large. And as is true for a lot of countries you have to invest first in the primary health. So, you need doctors and nurses to keep people alive. And then there's the ally help for increasing the quality of life, which is often the next professional area to develop. I think Bangladesh is after that.
WT:With early intervention and the appropriate resources, how much improvement is possible for someone suffering from autism?
We know that currently there's no known cure for autism. So, autism is a life long condition that stays with people throughout. But we do know that every child, young person and adult has a lot of capacity to learn new skills and develop functional abilities. It's really about equipping the family with the right tools. Early intervention is definitely important. We know for a fact that early intervention – that is identified early, diagnosed early, and having access to activities and therapies that promote their development – is going to give the best outcome.
I think the other thing is that there's no single treatment path. There are many different therapy approaches and approaches to working with children and families with autism. There's strong evidence that in some children this works very well, but we do know also that one approach that works for one child may not work for the next. But the key is that early intervention is one of the biggest factors.