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Autism rates have increased six-fold, says minister

Izah Azahari

The Ministry of Health (MoH) has seen a six-fold increase in autism rates in the Sultanate, compared to 10 years ago, Minister of Health Dato Seri Setia Dr Haji Mohd Isham bin Haji Jaafar said yesterday.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has made it challenging for the MoH to carry out diagnosis as the multidisciplinary team (MDT) assessment clinic was unable to do face-to-face clinical assessments and that the majority of the healthcare professionals were deployed elsewhere – outside the Child Development Centre (CDC),” he said as the guest of honour at the World Autism Awareness Day forum, themed ‘Child Led: Choosing the Best Programmes for Your Autistic Child,’ organised by the Society for the Management of Autism Related Issues in Training, Education and Resources (SMARTER) Brunei.

Now that the Sultanate is in the Early Endemic Phase, the MoH is able to carry out a catch-up drive of the MDT assessment clinic and try their best to identify more cases, he said.

According to Dato Seri Setia Dr Haji Mohd Isham, statistics from 2011 until April 19, 2022, show some 2,567 individuals in the Sultanate with autism, including children.

As this year marked the 15th year the country commemorates World Autism Awareness Day, the minister noted the growing public awareness of autism spectrum disorder and the improvement in public and non-governmental services to cater to those affected. “World Autism Awareness Day not only fosters greater understanding, it empowers parents and stakeholders into seeking early intervention therapy for children and calls for the full integration of children with autism into society,” said the minister, adding that “with adequate and the right support and care, Insya Allah, they can and should be educated at the heart of their communities.

Minister of Health Dato Seri Setia Dr Haji Mohd Isham bin Haji Jaafar delivers a speech. PHOTOS: IZAH AZAHARI
Participants during the World Autism Awareness Day forum

Therefore, it is important for all of us to continue to invest our time and efforts to learn about the condition and create life-changing opportunities for children with autism”.

The minister also believed that children with autism have enormous potential as most exhibit remarkable visual, artistic or academic skills, and with assistive technologies available, these children can communicate and display their untapped capabilities.

“Recognising the talents of children on the autism spectrum, rather than focussing on their weaknesses, is essential to creating a society that is truly inclusive.

“There is a need to ensure learning programmes provided cater to individual needs, and should not just be academic-based; they ought to provide life skills that promote life-long learning.

“We, the community need to play our part and join forces to create the best possible conditions for those with autism, especially children, so that they can contribute to a future that is fair and sustainable for all.”

The forum began with the recitation of Surah Al–Fatihah followed by welcoming remarks from SMARTER Brunei President Pengiran Zamri bin Pengiran Haji Bujang, who highlighted the unique, highly-structured, and eclectic programmes SMARTER Brunei provided for over 20 years to cater to the local community.

The president said finding the right programme for a child after diagnosis can be overwhelming for parents.

He hoped that the forum will provide information to parents and caregivers regarding a range of programmes offered.

The event also featured a discussion from a panel comprising senior lecturer at Counselling and Community Services, Torrens University Australia Debbie Smith and CDC Consultant and Paediatrician Dr Hajah Mawarni binti Haji Abdul Hamid, moderated by SMARTER Chief Executive Officer and Vice President I Sharifah Adila Surya binti Malai Haji Abdullah.