One of the most important tools in effective treatment of autistic children — early diagnosis — is not used much in Georgia, because of parents’ fear and shame, according to a leading specialist in the condition.
Autism is a lifelong developmental disorder. There is no cure for it, but a specially tailored approach and daily care can have a stimulating effect on autistic children and help them develop some or all of the social skills, according to the UK National Autistic Society. An autistic child has cognitive problems and needs special assistance to perform some routine tasks such as dressing, washing and eating, said the Head of Tbilisi’s Pediatric Neurology and Neuro-Rehabilitation Center, Nana Tatishvili.
But attitudes are a problem when it comes to treating autistic children, said Sophiko Kereselidze, the parent of an autistic child and the founder of the Georgian Autism Association.
“As Georgian society is not tolerant to any sort of difference, parents prefer to hide that their children have impairment to protect them from unnecessary and intrusive attention,” she said.
In Georgia, Kereselidze said, treating an autistic child costs a lot. For example, one hour of applied behavioral analysis therapy costs 20 lari and each child has to receive at least 40 hours of this treatment per week. Both clinical and alternative treatments cost money, and, with no financial help from the government, parents find it difficult to afford services, she added.
The Georgian Autism Association, founded and led by Kereselidze, aims to raise public awareness about autism as well as offer treatment and care for autistic children.
“Parents should not hide the fact their child is autistic. [They should] take him to doctor when the very first signs are seen. It is true that early diagnosis can help and hiding the problem will only lead to many other complications,” said Kereselidze.
“Lack of information about autism is behind the negative attitude of the public,” she added.
Nino Bandzeladze, a parent, says she and her autistic child both suffer from the public’s attitude. Autistic children cannot socialize easily, she said. They do not behave appropriately in public and sometime are subjected to rude reactions, according to Bandzeladze.
“For example, if a stranger gives a chocolate bar to my son, he will push it back despite he loves it very much. This will be perceived by that person as a sign of ill manners and he may retaliate by saying something rude,” she said.
Integrated schools, where children with special needs study alongside other students, could help autistic children learn how to behave with others and for the society to get to know autistic children better, said Bandzeladze. However, some people say, they would not like autistic children to study with other students, she added.
As a result of the negative public attitude, some Georgian parents of autistic children use taxis rather than public transportation to protect their children.
“Personally I am not bothered that much [with the society’s attitude], so I use public transport. However, in general, public attitude is very negative,” one mother said. “Perhaps when they learn more about our children’s condition, they will change their attitude.”
“A child with autism is different from other children mostly in sensations and perception,” said Tatishvili.
Tatishvili added attitudes towards autistic children are not different from those toward other disabled children. “Sometime people [feel pity] and show it to parents and it is even worse,” says Tatishvili.
As there are many unreported cases of autism across the country because of parents’ failure to recognize the signs, the Georgian Society of Autism has made identification of autistic children a priority. Tatishvili said there are some red flags that should lead parents to have a child tested for autism. These include inattentiveness and lack of reaction when the child’s name is called. These red flags have been identified by the center to enable parents to recognize a potential problem and consult a doctor at an early stage, said Tatishvili.
Parents say a positive change in society’s attitude may help them better accommodate the special needs of their children. This change, they say, is almost certain to come once public awareness of autism rises.