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Autism turning into regional epidemic, experts warn

Last updated: Monday, January 28, 2013 1:18 AM

Fatima Muhammad
Saudi Gazette

JEDDAH — Specialists are suggesting that research facilities at universities be utilized to develop programs to help autistic children. They also asked for an in-depth study to determine the real causes of the “alarming increase” of autism in the region.

Dr. Ehab Raja, head of the medical team at the Arab Network for Autism (ANA), said students more often than not turn in their research papers and keep them at university libraries. They rarely seek to apply their research findings in practice. He added that they hope to adapt these researches and turn them into practical tools to help autistic children.

The doctor was speaking to Saudi Gazette on the sidelines of the ninth meeting of the ANA at Jeddah Autism Center Saturday night.

Raja warned that autism could become an “epidemic” in the region based on the rate of its increase in the past several years. He demanded real action from Arab officials and specialists to reverse the trend.

According to Raja, autistic children should not be kept isolated or grouped with children suffering from other disabilities, but rather be mingled with normal children at schools.

“Only in the primary stages autistic children need to be taught skills separately to overcome some of their difficulties. At later stages they can be mingled with other children in schools,” elaborated Raja.

He added that there are factors that they need to study in-depth to diagnose autism cases. These include hereditary factors, immune imbalances, eating disorders and pollution.

He claimed that there is always hope to limit the negative side of autism to the minimum through “early diagnosis and intervention.”

Despite the fact that there are no exact studies indicating the number of children with autism in the Arab region, specialists agreed that the numbers are increasing annually.

According to Princess Fahda Bint Saud, chairperson of Al-Faisaliah Charity Society which is hosting the event, there is a pressing need to evaluate and monitor the outcome of the ANA work and how it can help the autistic people. She said, “As members of the board of directors, in my personal view, we have not done enough. This is not an honorary position, rather it is a responsibility toward autistic children and therefore we have to constantly evaluate our role.”

Samira Al-Gasimi, the current president of ANA, said they have devised a five-year plan to help autistic children in the Arab region. The plan will be effective from February 2013. “We will be launching a campaign with the same mission and logo in all Arab countries to help enhance services provided to children with autism; we will also be adopting researches in this field and providing aid to different Arab countries.”

She added that they have signed an agreement with the Arab Institute for Continuing Professional Development to enhance the skills of workers in autism care.

Princess Samira Bint Abdullah Al-Faisal, head of the family support committee at ANA, said to operate fully and effectively they need support from concerned authorities in Arab countries. “We hope to be able to operate under the umbrella of UNICEF to be able to help families exchange experiences and help provide suitable environment to children with autism.”

Asked what her country lacked to help autistic children, she replied that they still lack qualified and experienced personnel in this field.

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