INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana — According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in 160 children will be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is an intellectual disability that manifests differently in each individual while generally affecting a person’s social, behavioral and communication skills globally. Early diagnosis of ASD is essential for interventions with children on the spectrum. Intervention can teach children to operate successfully in the world. Iran is making great strides in improving autism treatment and diagnosis using education and technology.
The need for improvement
Measuring the prevalence of autism in low- and middle-income countries can be difficult due to the lack of universal guidelines for diagnosing autism.
Iran has released only one study showing the prevalence of ASD in Iran in 2012. This study found that around 0.06% of Iranian children are on the autism spectrum compared to a global average of 1%. With a population of almost 84 million, outside studies estimate Iran’s rate of autism to be closer to 90 per 10,000 children, or 0.9%.
As a middle-income country, Iran struggles to meet the needs of its autistic population. While children can be diagnosed with autism as young as 2 years old, most Iranian children on the spectrum don’t get diagnosed until they are 5 or 6 years old. ASD screening procedures in Iran are not implemented until the “pre-school medical examination”, which is not compulsory before enrolling in first grade.
US-based international autism charity Autism Speaks says early autism intervention “can improve learning, communication and social skills, as well as development under underlying brain”. The Hope Source is an autism treatment center located in Indianapolis, Indiana. Deputy Director Angel Brown says early diagnosis can improve happiness and long-term quality of life for people with autism. Brown also points out that it’s never too late for treatment because late diagnoses only take “longer to reach their benchmarks” with longer treatments.
Unfortunately, longer processing times lead to higher costs. On average, an autistic child accumulates $60,000 per year in therapeutic services. However, early intervention of ASDs can reduce the prolonged need for speech therapy, occupational therapy, and special education later in life. One study estimated that each child with autism could save up to $19,000 through earlier diagnosis.
The non-profit advocacy organization Iran Autism Association (IAA) said people with autism were not recognized as “incurable” in Iran until 2019. Since that milestone was reached, many improvements were made to the diagnosis.
In 2018, Iranian behavioral scientists developed a comprehensive system that uses technology to assess and diagnose ASD in kindergarten children. The intelligent system uses interactive games to analyze the behaviors of young children. Moreover, the system works independently and does not need to be managed by doctors, which increases accessibility and enables widespread implementation throughout Iran.
While improvements are still needed in the area of early autism screening and diagnosis, Iran is making efforts to advance research and develop innovative technologies to meet the needs of its autistic population.
Once a child has been diagnosed with autism, experts recommend that treatment begin immediately. Autism Speaks found that early intervention offers “the best opportunity to support healthy development and provide lifelong benefits.” Unfortunately, treatment is not always widely available for people with autism in Iran.
Brown found that a lack of access to treatment for his clients would have a “detrimental effect on quality of life.” Brown explains that failure to step in and provide treatment would negatively affect the ASD client and the entire family unit. That is why it is essential to establish treatment centers and schools for people with autism in Iran.
Schools for children with ASD
By 2021, Iran had established 47 schools for children with ASD. Unfortunately, ASD schools only provide educational services to about 3,000 students, a fraction of the autistic population in Iran. Considering the timeline of recognition and promotion of autism in Iran, the establishment of autism-specific schools in Iran is good progress.
It wasn’t until 2018 that a treatment center opened in Iran, offering a more holistic approach to autism intervention, similar to The Hope Source. Brown says it’s essential to meet all of the needs of children on the spectrum beyond behavioral therapy. The new treatment center offered a variety of services, including occupational therapy, speech therapy, physiotherapy and more.
The autism room
In February 2021, Iran inaugurated a high-tech and innovative center for autistic children in the city of Qazvin. A highlight of the center titled “The Autism Room” uses technology in interesting ways. Because of how people with ASD struggle with the senses and are prone to overstimulation, “The Autism Room” aims to eliminate all overwhelming sensory factors, including sound, smell, and light. The room works to calm the individual and help people concentrate to practice special aid exercises, which helps people control their body movements. Finally, the high-tech room can transform to demonstrate sensory overload to people off the spectrum, increasing empathy, understanding, and advocacy.
As in many low- and middle-income countries, investment in autism services in Iran has started late compared to most high-income countries. However, since the recognition of autism as a special and incurable disease in 2019, Iran has made efforts to meet the needs of people with ASD. Early diagnosis and intervention have been key efforts, while the IAA has been successful in exempting autistic boys from military service and working with police to locate and safely interact with missing persons with ASD.
– Hannah Gage