World Autism Awareness Day

Anil Kapoor in 2008 movie Yuuvraj … Shah Rukh Khan in 2010 movie My Name is Khan Priyanka Chopra in 2012 movie Barfi.

Is there any similarity between these Bollywood actors?

Any Guesses?

Well, all these actors are part of three different Bollywood movies based on the theme of Autism.

Autism is one of five developmental disorders included under the umbrella of the Pervasive Developmental Disorders. Autism is a disorder that begins in early childhood and stays throughout adulthood. Autism not only affects a person’s ability to communicate with others but also makes it hard for the person with autism to make direct eye contact. An autistic person may be seen engaged in repetitive behaviour, remain aloof, and interact only if they need to fulfil certain specific goals.

Autism is characterized by deficits in social interaction and communication, and unusual and repetitive behaviour. Cognitive abilities in people with autism vary between those with average to above average intelligence, to borderline and mild mental retardation, and others who function within the moderate to profoundly mentally retarded range.

People often state that autism ‘happened’ only in the twentieth century. But, just like many disorders which we identify now, autism is believed to have always existed. It was just not identified as a specific disorder. References to individuals whose descriptions are similar to the characteristics of autism have existed through history. Amongst these were the ‘holy fools’ who were a much venerated people in ancient Russia, dating back to the sixteenth century. These individuals were reported to be eccentric, given to parroting, with stereotypic speech and actions, obsessive interests, and lack of social awareness. Late eighteenth century accounts of the ‘Wild Boy of Aveyron’ discovered in a forest in France, who was later named Victor, offers us a description that is remarkably similar to Kanner’s a couple of centuries later.

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However, while autism has always existed, it is only in the last sixty years that it has been given a name, and described by its very specific characteristics. The word ‘autism’ was first used by Bleuler, a Swiss psychiatrist in 1911 to refer to schizophrenia. Then, over 50 years ago, a young boy named Donald visited the child psychiatrist, Leo Kanner, in his office at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Kanner was “…struck by the uniqueness and peculiarities which Donald exhibited. He could, since the age of two-and-a-half years, tell the names of all presidents and vice-presidents, recite the letters of the alphabet forwards and backwards and flawlessly, with good enunciation, rattle off the Twenty-Third Psalm. His memory was phenomenal. Yet he was unable to carry on an ordinary conversation.

He was out of contact with people, although he could handle objects skillfully. The few times when he addressed someone–largely to satisfy his wants–he referred to himself as ‘You’ and to the person as ‘I’. He did not respond to any intelligence tests, but manipulated intricate form boards adroitly” (Gillberg & Coleman, 1992). Over the next few years, Kanner would see ten other children who were similarly self-absorbed and who had severe social, communication, and behavioural problems. In 1943, Kanner published a paper applying the term ‘early infantile autism’ to this group of children, characterized by withdrawal and with ritualistic behaviours, and gave medical literature a window to this complex and enigmatic disorder. Children with the symptoms originally described by Kanner are now the minority of those diagnosed with autism, as the quest to understand this condition has expanded into a field of its own.

The earliest mention of autism in Indian scientific literature may date back to 1944, from a Viennese paediatrician named A. Ronald working in Darjeeling. Ronald presented an overview of the detection, causes, types and treatment of what he termed ‘abnormal children’ in the very same year as Kanner’s hallmark publication. The first time the term “autism” appeared in the Indian literature was in 1959, and a half-dozen publications appeared through the 1960s. Beyond that there was limited knowledge about autism in the medical community. In the late 1970s there were a few centres in India that were diagnosing children with autism. In 1994, Action for Autism (AFA) started a full time one-year teacher training course in Delhi.

In recent years, many parents have experienced a new and potentially equally frustrating situation. Due to the explosion of knowledge through the internet, parents come to learn the crucial importance of immediate intervention in long term prognosis of children with autism.

As per the 2011 Census of India, there are 7,862,921 children with disabilities below the 19-year age group, among which 595,089 have an intellectual disability. The study also stated that one in 66 children was autistic in India. Despite being an alarming issue, autism awareness is severely lacking though its incidence has increased over the last decade.

World Autism Awareness Day is observed on April 2, every year to makes people understand and accept people with autism, foster worldwide support, and inspire people. It is a day that spread kindness and autism awareness.

The UN Secretary-General’s message for 2021 is:

“As we work together to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, one key goal must be to build a more inclusive and accessible world that recognizes the contributions of all people, including persons with disabilities”.

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