In a first step towards recognising autism as a condition that can be classified as a “disability”, the State government will soon make official a policy that extends all benefits and schemes extended to persons with disability, including medical support, intervention and educational benefits, to those diagnosed with autism.

If this proposal, mooted by the State Commission for Persons with Disability comes through, the State will set right a wrong that those living with autism have endured for 17 years, since the Persons With Disabilities Act (1995) was put into effect.

Currently, autism is classified as mental retardation, even as the new Bill on disabilities that brings the condition into the ambit of the Disabilities Act is pending Parliament's approval.

State funding

Another State government proposal is to extend funding to day-care centres in the Bangalore Urban area that specialise in providing support and intervention to those affected by autism.

State Commissioner for Disabilities K.V. Rajanna told The Hindu that autism as a condition has been classified under mental retardation, and hence, has not received specialised support or care.

“If the policy is finalised, then the government, through the Disabilities Directorate, will agree to take up the salary costs of trainers, psychologists and other staff. What we are thinking is that educators must be hired on a 1:5 ratio, so they can get specialised care,” says Mr. Rajanna.

Mr. Rajanna adds that the government is likely to clear this proposal within a few months, and that he was in constant talks with the government.

An estimated two million persons suffer from autism in India.

However, activists, specialists in the field and parents complain that this issue has been ignored for long. And not being recognised as a condition that requires specialised care, has meant that awareness is low and children go for years without proper intervention. The more delayed the intervention, the more difficult it becomes to mainstream them, doctors say.

Smitha Avasthi, a behaviour analyst who works with the Association for Behaviour Analysis, calls it a “huge shame” that we are yet to recognise it as a condition different from mental retardation.

“At the grassroots level, what is happening is that when parents approach doctors for certifying their child's condition, the certificate they receive classifies these children as ‘mentally-retarding'. Not only is it misleading, it also is demoralising and agonising for parents,” she says. Worse, she says, States have no policy on this and are yet to wake up to this issue.

Specialists believe that early intervention can work wonders for those suffering from autism. With specialised care, which should preferably begin between the age of two and three, these children can go on to excel in several areas, particularly in interfaces where they can work on their own.

“This is something that we need parents, educators and health care workers to know, so that the message is communicated to each and every parent. Even western countries grapple with these very issues of (lack of) awareness, but things have improved there in recent years due to proper government and health care intervention in the field,” another doctor said.

Keywords: autism