More Action Needed on Autism

New programme will only help a limited number of young people with autism.

State services for children with autism in Georgia are still limited, and there is little public awareness of the condition.

A new treatment initiative is currently being rolled out, but only in the capital Tbilisi, so it will only reach a fraction of the estimated 7,000 children with autism in Georgia.

Sofo Kereselidze, who heads the Centre for Autism, says more and more cases are being diagnosed in Georgia, although experts still do not fully understand the causes.

“A great many people come to us for help,” Kereselidze said. “One in every 88 children in the world is born with autism spectrum disorder. In Georgia, no comprehensive studies have been conducted, but there have been pilot studies that indicate that the figures are similar.”

Magda Inanashvili, a therapist at the Centre for Autism, told IWPR that a diagnosis was usually made before a child turned three. Children with the neurological development disorder often avoid eye contact, shy away from interaction and appear isolated, although symptoms vary widely.

“They do not behave like other children…. They perceive things differently,” she said.

Experts working in the field highlight the importance of raising public awareness of autism in order to facilitate early diagnosis and help society become more sympathetic. For example, World Autism Awareness Day on April 12 has been marked in Georgia for the last four years. This year, a special event for children and their carers was held at the Tbilisi zoo.

“If therapy is started early enough, 50 per cent of children can go on to lead fully independent lives,” said Maia Gabunia, a spokeswoman for the Neural Development Clinic. “And recent studies show that nine per cent of them may end up having the diagnosis removed.”

Treatment involves one-to-one psychological therapy for about 40 hours per week, but at between 12 and 24 lari (five to ten US dollars) an hour, many in Georgia can simply not afford it.

A new programme of state-funded care is about to launch in the capital, according to Amiran Dateshidze, the head of social programmes at the ministry of health. He told IWPR that from July, the mayor’s office will start providing services for children with autism spectrum disorder.

Details of the services have not yet been made public, and it is unclear how many children will be included in the scheme or how many hours of therapy will be provided free of charge.

The programme is limited to the capital. In other parts of the country, children with autism receive no assistance, with the exception of those living in the Akhaltsikhe district of southern Georgia.

Dateshidze said local governments would have to start funding their own programmes once the education ministry formulated a more detailed policy.

“The experience of developed countries shows that it is best practice for such services to be decentralised,” he said.

Experts say that as well as subsiding therapy, local authorities need to be more involved in raising public awareness. On top of the financial burden of treatment, autistic children and their families often have to deal with social prejudice.

“On the street, on public transport, you have to explain that your child has problems,” said one mother of an autistic child, who asked to remain anonymous. “People might seem to understand, but they start pitying you, and that’s very hard. The child might not behave like other children, and people get annoyed.”

Lia Barbakadze, a Tbilisi resident who also has a child with autism spectrum disorder, agrees. “People should not be hostile,” she said “The child might scream and create a fuss about something. Society should be more understanding of this.”

Tea Topuria is a Tbilisi-based correspondent for RFE/RL.