Autism and educational barriersInclusionary efforts across various sectors are necessary to support individuals and children with autism.
Autism, a neurodevelopmental condition impacting social interaction, communication and behaviour, poses unique challenges for families seeking their children’s education. Despite the availability of diverse educational curricula and educational boards, autistic children face obstacles while enrolling in public and private schools. According to the government’s survey for the fiscal year 2021-22, there were 34,368 schools in Nepal. However, these schools do not admit autistic students or show any advocacy or approval. They often cite concerns about the children’s inability to engage with the curriculum based on rote learning and extended attention spans when asked about their reason for disapproval.
Autism is not contagious, and the children pose no threat to their peers. However, at lower levels like Montessori and kindergarten, many parents collectively voice their grievances, calling for removing autistic children from classes, fearing their children might get affected. Regrettably, rather than educating these parents about autism and promoting acceptance, schools tend to give in to their ignorance. A limited understanding of autism, resistance to change, inadequate teacher training and rigid curriculum and assessment methods are among the main reasons for excluding autistic children from mainstream education.
There is no denying that special attention and awareness are required to address issues like sensory overload, social difficulties, limited resources, stigma from parents and bullying by neurotypical peers. However, these challenges should not justify the exclusion of these special children, as autism ranks among the top 12 disabilities in Nepal, with recent data revealing 4,886 individuals affected (2,258 males and 2,628 females). Such exclusion not only exacerbates societal awareness and understanding of the issues faced by autistic children but also impacts the nation’s disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) burden. It is imperative to start tailored inclusion efforts across various sectors, from education to other domains, to support individuals and children with autism.
Inclusion in education
Just as diversity in ethical background, culture, race and beliefs is welcomed in the classroom, it is high time disabled individuals are treated the same way in educational environments. Inclusion promotes the fundamental right to dignity and social participation for all individuals, regardless of gender, race, caste, class, or disability. Core principles of inclusion advocate that every person is accepted in the community and has inherent value and a voice. Inclusive education aligns with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals on lifelong learning and is vital for all children. Disability inclusion explicitly safeguards the rights and needs of disabled individuals, ensuring access to education and relationships while recognising each individual’s unique gifts. Nepal has made commendable strides in recognising and upholding the rights of individuals with disabilities through a robust legal framework. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2017 and the Constitution of Nepal, 2015 stand as beacons of inclusivity, ensuring that every child, regardless of their abilities, has the right to free and compulsory education. The National Education Policy 2019 further solidifies this commitment, highlighting the importance of tailored support and vocational training to empower individuals with disabilities.
Despite these legal provisions, a considerable gap exists between policy and practice. Challenges persist, from a shortage of data on hidden disabilities like autism to the absence of need-based curriculum and adequate teacher training. Surprisingly, an estimated 33 percent of children with disabilities still do not have access to education, underscoring the urgent need for more inclusive practices in the education system.
Call for action
The government must recognise that Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) poses a significant national burden, affecting millions of individuals and resulting in the loss of DALYs. Failing to provide timely treatment and care for ASD can result in lifelong disabilities, restricted educational and employment avenues, social isolation, increased caregiver responsibilities and decreased overall productivity. This necessitates urgent attention and comprehensive support from the government.
The government must invest in early screening and interventions, improve accessibility to therapy, enhance specialised education and vocational services, enforce anti-discrimination measures, offer community support, provide caregiver assistance, fund context-specific research and promote awareness and acceptance to mitigate the unwanted impact. Such measures collectively reduce autism’s burden on individuals and their families while fostering greater societal inclusion and well-being.
A comprehensive approach is necessary to meet the urgent needs of individuals with autism in Nepal. This includes officially designating autism as a national public health priority and crafting a dedicated strategy and action plan. Adequate funding allocation within the state and national budget planning for autism programmes and services is the need of the day.
As early diagnosis is crucial, mandatory autism screening should be established for all children. Moreover, specialised training for healthcare professionals, educators and caregivers to recognise autism signs and implement evidence-based interventions effectively is equally important. Implementing strict regulations is essential to enhance affordability and accessibility for parents seeking autism-related care. Protection against discrimination and enforcing rights for individuals with autism is vital. Public awareness campaigns should be launched to foster understanding and acceptance.
The transformative potential of inclusive education and proper government attention cannot be overstated. It is not merely an obligation but an opportunity to foster equality, social inclusion and quality education. Let us celebrate diversity and champion equity, for inclusive education empowers individuals with disabilities, encourages personal growth and contributes to the well-being of their families, communities and the nation.