Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : April 5th 2017 Contents tobagotoday.co.tt April 5 - 2017
Dr Radica Mahase Founder/director of
Support Autism T&T Jason is ten years old.
He doesn't communicate verbally, he hard-
ly interacts with other children and he is
has very sensitive hearing. He loves music
and he picks up notes almost immediately.
His parents started him with piano lessons
when they realised that he plays his toy
keyboard whenever he is agitated.
He uses the music to make himself feel
better. His music teacher realised that he
has a natural talent and in four months, he
has learnt to play notes on the piano that
an average child would take more than a
year to learn. Jason is gifted when it comes
to music and his parents are doing everything
to encourage him.
Vishal is also 12 years old. He communi-
cates verbally but most of the time he repeats
what is said to him. He hardly interacts with
children and a few years ago, his parents had
to take him out of the school that he attend-
ed because of behavioural issues. He loves
to look at videos on YouTube and his parents
use this to keep him calm, otherwise he can
become very agitated. Both Jason and Vishal
were diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Dis-
Autism is characterized by development
challenges with social skills and speech.
Often individuals with autism display repet-
itive behaviours and may have certain
strengths and differences. The characteristics
lie on a spectrum so that no two individu-
als with autism are the same; each person
develops differently and displays certain
characteristics unique to them. Jason loves
music and is very good at it while Vishal is
more inclined towards learning through tech-
nology. Jason is non-verbal while Vishal
Presently, it is not clear how many indi-
viduals in our country are living with autism
as no prevalence study has been completed
as yet. In recent years though, with more
awareness and through the influence of social
media, more and more parents and caregiv-
ers have sought to get their children diag-
Ideally, an individual should be diagnosed
by a paediatrician specialising in develop-
ment. A diagnosis is given after an intensive
examination of the child's behaviour and
physical, mental and emotional development
over a period of time. Autism can be diag-
nosed from as early as 18 months. The ear-
lier an individual is diagnosed with autism,
the better chances are of helping that person
to live with autism.
In T&T, a child can be diagnosed at the
paediatrics department in the hospitals. Par-
ents can make an appointment at the hos-
pitals once they have a referral letter from
a general practitioner (GP). The waiting
period ranges anywhere between five and 18
months depending on the hospital. Usually,
once the child is diagnosed, the paediatrician
will direct the parents towards seeking the
relevant services needed to help the child
such as speech, occupational, physical and/
or behavioural therapies.
These various therapies are presently avail-
able privately in T&T. The cost can range
anywhere between $200 to $500 per session
and a session usually lasts one hour. Research
done in developed countries such as the UK
and USA has shown that someone with
autism needs an average of 15 hours of com-
bined therapy per week.
Educating an individual with autism is
also a major challenge in T&T. There are
just a handful of autism-specific schools and
all are privately owned. The cost ranges from
$200 to $3,000 a month. The special schools
run by the Government group children with
various development challenges such as
autism, down syndrome, cerebral palsy etc,
together in one space and this presents a
different set of challenges.
Children with autism who are higher func-
tioning are sometimes accepted in the reg-
ular primary schools, especially in more rural
areas where local schools try to facilitate the
Vishal for example, was accepted by a
primary school located near to his home
until he started having regular meltdowns
and had to stop attending school. Unfortu-
nately, in most cases, teachers are not trained
in special education.
Some students have been assigned a teach-
er's aide by the Ministry of Education but
generally, there are many more high func-
tioning children with autism who can be
integrated into the public school system.
Jason's parents believe that he can attend
a regular primary school but because he does
not communicate verbally he needs a teach-
er's aide who can work with him on an indi-
vidual basis and help him with simple tasks.
He has been waiting for an aide to be assigned
to him for the past two years. In the mean-
time, because of lack of options, he is at
T&T not friendly towards
people with special needs
Generally, T&T has not been very friend-
ly towards people with special needs in terms
of physical infrastructure or social behaviour.
It is no different with people with autism.
Problems range from public transport---trav-
elling in a maxi taxi with loud music with
a child who has sensitive hearing can be a
nightmare for that child. Taking some chil-
dren to the mall or to the movies can be an
overwhelming experience for those children
who are sensitive to noise and bright lights.
Many times when a child has a meltdown
in a public space, other adults need to give
advice---"a good slap will keep him quiet"
or "beat that bad behaviour out of her".
Unfortunately, this is only the result of lack
of understanding of autism and the fact that
as a country we have not promoted accep-
tance of those with differences.
During Autism Awareness Month let us
make an extra effort to understand, accept
and appreciate those who are different in
our society. We can learn so much from
children like Jason and Vishal; surely they
deserve to have a space in our country.
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