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Autism spectrum disorder, also known as ASD, refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges associated with social skills, speech and nonverbal behaviour. It is a developmental disorder which has no official physical characteristics as such. Therefore, it is not as straightforward to diagnose or understand as other disabilities, leading to many ASD persons being misdiagnosed or mistreated throughout the world.
In general, the less economically developed a country is, and the more remote and rural an area within such nations, the greater is the likelihood of a failure to understand the condition of autism. Typically, this translates into autistic people being considered as mentally ill or ‘possessed’ in some form by witchcraft or an evil demon. For example, one study of attitudes held by Nigerian psychiatric or paediatric nurses found that more than 40% of those surveyed believed that autism had supernatural causes, such as ancestral spirits or the action of the devil.
Another prevalent view in some communities is that autism is a disease of spoilt affluence. In 2016, a three-year old child diagnosed with autism died in a supposed rehabilitation centre for autistic children in Guangzhou, southern China. The centre forced the children to walk between 6-12 miles a day and allegedly forced them to lie in substitute incubators to ‘cure’ them through sweating.
Problems in diagnosis or treatment of ASD people are far from exclusive to developing countries or those transitioning to developed. Just last month, an article in The Guardian highlighted mistreatment of autistic children in France and how a reliance on psychoanalysis had led to misdiagnosis and separation of families. A UN-commissioned report in 2016 was damning, stating that children with autism ‘continue to be subjected to widespread violation of their rights’ and were ‘particularly concerned that the majority of children with autism do not have access to education in mainstream schools’. President Macron’s government has promised a new autism action plan shortly.
Meanwhile, German provisions and support for autistic children are arguably victims of their own high standards. A 2017 study suggested that a spike in ASD diagnoses was the result of parents seeking such diagnoses to gain access to the special educational support afforded to autistic children, when their child had other conditions or simply a lower IQ. Among the provisions provided by the German educational system for autistic children is the assignment of a learning helper to each autistic child.
Even when correctly diagnosed, ASD people can face discrimination. On two occasions in the last two years, New Zealand’s Immigration Services have garnered controversy for refusing residency to ASD children due to their condition. In one of the cases, the Bangladeshi family of the 6-year-old child denied residency had the decision successfully overturned at a tribunal, which found that a ‘serious procedural error’ led to the overstatement of the severity of the child’s autism, the reason for which the application was originally rejected. However, Article 18 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states that:
Parties shall recognize the rights of persons with disabilities to liberty of movement, to freedom to choose their residence and to a nationality, on an equal basis with others
As argued by Dimitri Leemans, the father of the other autistic child refused residency, New Zealand is contravening the Convention which it willingly ratified by refusing autistic children solely on the basis of their disability.
Across the Tasman Ditch, Australia saw its own controversy last year concerning the treatment of autistic children when Australian Senator Pauline Hanson, leader of the right-wing, populist One Nation Party, appeared to advocate effectively for the segregation of autistic children in education. A backlash ensued, including an impassioned response from Labor MP Emma Husar (pictured below) whose son has autism, but Hanson refused to apologise, claiming her comments to had been ‘taken out of context’.
UN human rights experts marking World Autism Awareness Day in 2015 argued that discrimination against autistic persons ‘is the rule rather than exception’. However, both the 2006 UN Convention and the 2015 World Health Assembly resolution on ‘comprehensive and coordinated efforts for the management of autism spectrum disorders’ are in place to prevent discrimination against autistic people and encourage countries to set up adequate support services.
An example of the setting up of such provisions can be seen with the opening just two days ago at the stadium of the Utah Jazz NBA team of a special sensory room to help accommodate ASD persons to the often overwhelming atmosphere of such venues.
The Jazz team are the fourth side to have a sensory room and the NBA aims to make 19 venues ‘sensory-inclusive’ by the beginning of the 2018-19 season in the autumn. Wendy Fournier, President of the US National Autism Association, has welcomed the move, commenting: ‘A lot of people and a lot of families are affected by autism and to accommodate this particular developmental disability is accommodating literally millions of families‘.
Initiatives such as this and the fact in itself that we have a World Autism Awareness Day, helping increase education about this often misunderstood condition, do suggest increased understanding of the needs of autistic people, although clearly significant progress remains to be made throughout the world.