One in every six persons, nearly one billion people representing 15% of the global population, experience some form of disability (WHO and World Bank, 2021). Disability prevalence is considerably higher in developing countries where they are often exposed to the untoward socio-economic environment including denial of their most fundamental rights and dignity.
A 2012 WHO study revealed that globally one in 160 children has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In Bangladesh, the prevalence of all kinds of neurodevelopmental disability is 7.1%, whereas the overall prevalence of ASD is 0.15% (around 250,000 people). The prevalence picture is much higher in the Capital City of Dhaka (around 3%). ASD is recognised as a major public health challenge as it is currently estimated to occur at significantly higher rates than pediatric cancer, HIV and heart diseases combined.
Autism (previously called Asperger's Syndrome) is a group of disorders involving a broad range of conditions falling within a certain spectrum that refers to a divergence of symptoms and severity. The first systematic description of autism was published in 1943 by Leo Kanner, an Austrian-American psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University, USA.
The signs and features of autism as a developmental disability can present themselves in a wide variety of combinations that may include restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behaviour and activities, challenges with social skills, attitudinal, speech, or nonverbal communication. Generally speaking, it is a lifelong, nonprogressive neurological disorder typically appearing in early childhood.
World Autism Awareness Day (WAAD), one of only seven official health-specific UN Days, is observed across the world on 2 April every year. The day encourages the global community to take measures in raising awareness about people with ASD so they can lead full and meaningful lives as an integral part of society.
WAAD puts a spotlight on the hurdles that people with autism face every day in the families, communities and the larger society- from private lives and livelihood options to cultural and other civic participation. As a growing global health concern owing to its increasing exposure to policymakers, media and the common people, autism is an issue that is gaining broader understanding and attention. WAAD goes one step further to celebrate the gifted talents of those with autism, who have enriched our progressive journey in science, technology, literature, education, media and other spheres of life.
Looking on the brighter side of the rainbow, autistic people may display a distinct range of strengths and abilities, including hyperlexia (advanced reading ability), quick learning and exceptional memory, logical thinking, precision, honesty and discipline. We may recall many gifted personalities with ASD such as the two most influential scientists of all time- Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, Canadian comedic actor Dan Aykroyd, Danish fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen (creator of "The Little Mermaid", "Thumbelina"), American author-historian Benjamin Banneker, Scottish singer Susan Boyle ("I Dreamed A Dream"), movie director Tim Burton (creator of "Alice in Wonderland"), British scientist Henry Cavendish (discoverer of hydrogen), to name just a few.
On the other hand, looking at the grey side of the sky, people with ASD are often subjected to stigma, discrimination, non-conducive regulatory policies, inadequate treatment, care and support services, and denial or violations of their basic human and fundamental rights. As a result, individuals with autism face marginalization and poverty at disproportionate rates.
To build an autism-friendly socio-legal environment, Bangladesh has been trying to develop a rights-based paradigm for persons with ASD. The Constitution of Bangladesh guarantees the right of all citizens to enjoy their fundamental rights and freedoms, human dignity and social equality. As early as 1993, the Government of Bangladesh adopted 'The United Nations Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities.
In 2006, the government formulated a Five-year National Action Plan on Disability. In December 2009, the Government declared to ensure the admission of all disabled children to any school and tax exemption for those private entrepreneurs and corporate institutions that will employ disabled people in their respective institutions. In May 2014, the 67th World Health Assembly adopted a resolution entitled "Comprehensive and coordinated efforts for the management of autism spectrum disorders," which was supported by more than 60 countries including Bangladesh.
In 2013, the Parliament of Bangladesh promulgated two important acts to promote and protect the welfare of the country's autistic citizens, namely- Rights and Protection of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2013 and the Neuro-Developmental Disability Protection Trust Act, 2013. Besides, Bangladesh is one of the first countries to become party to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol as well as the ILO Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (Disabled Persons) Convention (No. 159) and Recommendation (No. 168).
Bangladesh is regarded as a role model in raising autism awareness and rehabilitation of the people suffering from autism. No other country in the region has committed itself quite so strategically to develop these systems. Nevertheless, this is a critical period in the history of neurodevelopmental disability in Bangladesh. While the pioneering initiatives of the present government are praiseworthy in this regard, the legacy still needs to be translated into sustainable strategies, multidisciplinary planning and evidence-based actions.
This year the WAAD is being observed amidst the devastating COVID-19 pandemic that has adversely affected people from all spheres of life globally. People with disabilities bear the brunt of the pandemic's consequential effects- from inequalities and deprivation to access to essential services and support. A vital call of this day is thus to place the special needs and protection of persons with autism on the priority attention of the national emergency response plans, policies and initiatives. This call is aptly expressed in the chosen theme of WAAD'2021: "Inclusion in the Workplace: Challenges and Opportunities in a Post-Pandemic World".
Dr MD Parvez Sattar, formerly a governance justice and human rights expert within the UN System, is currently employed as a faculty at the Department of Law, School of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, Independent University, Bangladesh. Email: [email protected]
Tarazi Mohammed Sheikh is a law student at BRAC University, Bangladesh. Email: [email protected]