Let’s create an inclusive environment for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder
April 3, 2023 News

Let’s create an inclusive environment for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

 "Let’s create an inclusive environment for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder" – this is the slogan for this year's World Autism Awareness Day, which is celebrated every year on April 2. Why it is so much important to celebrate this day, what is the prevalence of autism in Georgia, and what challenges faces our country in terms of access to services – we sat down to talk about all this with Maia Gabunia, the chairman of the Georgian Academy of Childhood Disability and Caritas Czech Republic projects expert.

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Statistics of the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder in Georgia and the world are increasing. What is the reason for this and how does the data looks like this year?


On March 24, 2023, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new information on the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder, which shows that the statistics are still rising. Until now, statistical data said that one in 44 children had an autism spectrum disorder. According to this year's data, one in 36 children has an autism spectrum disorder. It is also interesting to note that the statistics are particularly high in those states (for example, California) in which the awareness about autism spectrum disorder is particularly high and children are identified with autism on time.


Worth mentioning the results of our research, which was conducted differently from the research method of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Our assessment is more precise than theirs. They rely on population surveys. We studied a specific segment, in this case, third-grade children of public schools in large cities of Georgia, which gave us more accurate results. 


According to the results of the research, it was found that one out of 25 children in Georgia has an autism spectrum disorder. This means that if there are 30 children in a class, one might have autism spectrum disorder. In addition, it was found that in 75% of cases (that is 3 out of 4 cases), parents learned for the first time from our research that their child has an autism spectrum disorder.


You may hear such an opinion that because of the hyper diagnosis in Georgia, the data does not show the real picture. This opinion is wrong. Lots of children are diagnosed at a certain age and at some point, another doctor may say he does not have an autism spectrum disorder, and this, of course, makes parents happy. But when such children grow up, social communication and behavioral problems appear, and parents do not understand what they are dealing with. We see lots of such cases in our practice. 


Unfortunately, Autism Spectrum Disorder is not a diagnosis that can be removed in two years – patients with such a diagnosis will have it throughout the life. However, at least one-third of people with this diagnosis fully adapt to the environment in which they live, study, and then start working. Unfortunately, in Georgia, it is very difficult to talk about the employment of a person with an autism spectrum disorder. Even learning in kindergarten and school was a big problem just a few years ago, however, a lot has been done in this direction and it can be said undoubtfully that the country has moved forward in terms of inclusiveness. However, there are still many problems with higher and vocational education.




Why is early identification of autism spectrum disorder so much important?


The sooner autism spectrum disorder is identified and rehabilitation starts, the better the outcome. After Caritas Czech Republic’s project, importantly increased early childhood referrals, as the project helped train family doctors to identify autism at an early stage. Parents started bringing their children to our center already from one and a half to two-year-old. This is a very big achievement as in any case, it gives the possibility of a better outcome.


Let me give you an example. We have a branch in the city of Batumi as well, but we started launching autism services in Tbilisi earlier. In Batumi, services were delayed and most of the diagnosed children were of school age, and as a result, there are more complex cases in the Batumi branch than in Tbilisi.


What is the role of socialization in the development of people with autism spectrum disorder?


“Let’s create an inclusive environment for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder” is this year's topic of the World Autism Awareness Day. Creating an inclusive environment means that we need to have high acceptance and create the right environment for people with an autism spectrum disorder.


One of the problems of people with autism spectrum disorder is social communication. Where does socialization take place? First, with peers. It is necessary for all children to have relationships with their peers. We all have childhood friends, right? These people must also have childhood friends. And where does it start? From kindergarten, school, yard, and all these environments should be adjusted and adapted to children with autism spectrum disorder. We are talking about all the spaces in which children of typical development also go.


I'm not saying all this just because of high-flown words. People with autism spectrum disorder have a variety of abilities that can make them very useful to society. This is what makes autism spectrum disorders so special, that these people's brains are developed differently – some areas are overdeveloped, and some areas are underdeveloped. In developed countries, the resources of these people are used in many important sectors. Not everyone has these skills, but a lot of them definitely do.


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With the financial support of Czech Development Agency, Caritas Czech Republic has done a lot in 2015-2021 to create quality and accessible services for people with an autism spectrum disorder. As a result, the situation of children with autism spectrum and their families in Georgia improved significantly. What challenges is our country facing now?

In Tbilisi, the capital city, where everything starts, problems are much less. There is an autism program at the Tbilisi City Hall that is available to children living in Tbilisi. Several other cities have similar municipal programs.

However, in many cities and towns, this program does not exist and children are left without services. In addition, there are municipalities in which there are no qualified specialists who can help children with autism spectrum disorder in rehabilitation-habilitation. Even if the state is ready to finance the program, there is no specialist who can provide services within the framework of a particular program. There is a lot of work to be done in this direction. In addition, Tbilisi City Hall increased the age of service to 18 years, however, this was not accompanied by retraining of specialists and this is also a huge problem.

It is necessary to have support from donor organizations that will help the state in this direction and train specialists to provide age-appropriate services to adolescents and adults and teach them skills for an independent living.

This material was prepared in the scope of the project financed within the Official Development Assistance of the Czech Republic and implemented through the partnership between the Czech Development Agency and Caritas Czech Republic.

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