Mohammed jumps in the room full of toys at Iashvili Children's Central Hospital’s children’s mental health department. He moves quickly and makes a lot of noise. Salome Gabadze, a therapist, tries to calm him.
Gabadze is one of two autism therapists at the children’s hospital, who specializes in Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy (ABA) the only approved autism therapy. Autism is a lifelong brain disorder normally diagnosed in early childhood. Individuals with autism vary in their functional abilities, from those with no speech and limited cognitive ability to those with high IQ and highly focused interests.Gabadze has been treating Mohammed Ibrahimov, 6, for two months. It takes at least five hours a day of ABA therapy for each child with autism to show results. According to Gabadze, Mohammed didn’t have eye contact with her AT FIRST, but this has changed.
“Now he talks with me and his mother. I believe that our therapy will be successful. I had many patients like Mohammed, who now goes to ordinary school, can write and read,” Gabadze says.
The therapy with Mohammed is slow, because he does not know Georgian.. Ramida Ibrahimova, 33, Mohammed’s mother, is ethnic Azeri BUT grew up in Tbilisi and speaks Georgian. She speaks with Mohammad in Azeri language at home. She translates all directions of speech therapist to Mohammad from Georgian to Azeri.
According to the therapist, one reason for Mohammed’s slow progress in autism treatment is his poor Georgian.
Ibrahimova said her son constantly moves his back when he is sitting on a sofa or chair.. She took Mohammed to several neurologists, but all of them failed to diagnose the child. The parents turned to alternative medicine but saw little change in the child’s behavior. At Iashvili Children's Central Hospital, pediatric neurologist Medea Zirakashvili diagnosed Mohammed as autistic.
Ibrahimova complains about people’s attitude towards autistic children. She said other parents of autistic children face the same problems.
” People think that our children are mentally disabled. It hurts us,” she said.
According to Zirakashvili, “When a child can’t communicate or maintain eye contact,- this is a sign to suspect autism,” she said.
Zirakashvili said she has a lot of patients from the Caucasus, especially Azerbaijan, because there was no autism center in Azerbaijan until 2011.
According to Zirakashvili, research shows that when autistic children are treated with ABA therapy, the outcome is better compared to other therapies. In some countries they have such therapies as music and art, but Zirakashvili advises ABA therapy as a first choice. She says, step-by-step, children are taught to change their behavior. ABA therapy is expensive. Each therapy session costs 20 lari.
According to Nana Tatishvili, President of Georgian Pediatric Neurology Society, parents of autistic children are stigmatized. Generally families in Georgia tend to hide such problems.
“We should take autistic children as individuals, with different abilities. We should raise the awareness of society so that autistic people are acceptable,” Tatishvili said.
Five years ago, not many people have heard about autism, but as a result of trainings held in Kutaisi, Batumi and Gori, public awareness of the condition has risen.
In Georgia, there are two centers where diagnostic tools for autism are used, but these centers are located only in Tbilisi.