A school of hope for autistic children

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No parent is ever prepared to hear that his or her child is anything other than happy and healthy and learning that one’s child might have autism can be particularly frightening. But there are many ways in which special education can help improve the quality of life for children who suffer from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The Unique Gift Foundation’s school in Saidpur, northern Bangladesh, is a helping hand to families of such children.

The Unique Gift Foundation is a non-profit founded in 2012. Its mission is to offer support to children on the autism spectrum, giving them the confidence to perform day-to-day tasks without depending on their parents or others. The school was the first one dedicated entirely to autistic children to open in the Nilphamari district, the highest ranked region in education in the country, 400km away from Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital.

The school’s founder, Tauhida Sultana, is a businesswoman who grew up in the same district as the school. She was motivated to establish it following her experiences with an autistic nephew, and because she witnessed the agony of other families affected by the disorder. She recalls one family who kept their autistic child hidden away from guests, isolated and tied up in another room of the house.

A Unicef report published in 2014 estimates that between 1.4 percent and 17.5 percent of children in Bangladesh have special needs or disabilities—as many as 10 million children. The report notes that much work needs to be done to fully realise their rights. Many parents tend to hide their children’s disorders out of fear of embarrassment.

Hospitals in Bangladesh started using a medical-based diagnosis system to identify autistic children in 2001. Characteristics of autism may include difficulty with social skills, speech or non-verbal communication, as well as repetitive behaviour.

Worldwide, one in every 160 children suffers from autism, and is often subject to discrimination. But according to WHO, behavioural treatment and parental skills training programmes can reduce these difficulties, having a positive impact on well-being and quality of life.

Twice a year, the Unique Gift Foundation provides teacher training programmes on child development, nutrition, psychology and therapy. Teachers at the school learn to assess each student’s individual needs. Along with academics, the school offers classes in physical play, socialising through conversation, art and music. Students also learn how to share their snacks, ride a bicycle, comb their hair, organise their books and bags, use the toilet and say their prayers, among other things.

The school’s principal, Rubayatul Islam, says, “Children on the autism spectrum rarely like to interact with people of their own age. They might easily become angry and start a scuffle, so teachers need to calm them down.”

The stories of students at the Unique Gift Foundation school indicate that they can learn to adapt.

Nine-year-old Nurul demanded a lot of attention from his parents. “He would break utensils and other things within his reach if we did not respond to his call. We did not care for his behaviour and thought he would change as he grew older,” says Nurul’s father. When Nurul was six, his parents put him in a regular school. His father recalls, “He would get into fights, scream and bite others. The principal called me one day and asked me to take my son home because of his abnormal behaviour.” Nurul’s parents enrolled him in the Unique Gift Foundation school. A year later, their son was no longer restless or ill-tempered, but friendly and calm with his fellow classmates.

Three-year-old Afia suffered from a severe speech impairment along with acute attention deficit hyperactivity problems. She had a tendency to remain silent and isolated. Sohana Akhter, a teacher at the school, says, “Being friendly and loving with her, along with professional counselling, has brought changes in Afia’s behaviour.” Afia now plays with other children, and can pronounce words such as “mother” and“water.”

Funded mostly by Sultana herself, the children’s parents are required to pay a small fee to run the school, which currently has 33 students, 17 teachers and eight staff members. People from the district and surrounding areas wanting to set up schools for autistic children frequently visit the school to learn about its methods.

The Foundation now aims to build an autism village in the same school district with modern facilities such as hospitals, computer labs, psychotherapy centres, playgrounds and guest rooms.

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