INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana — According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in 160 children will receive an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis. ASD is a developmental disability that manifests itself differently in each individual while generally affecting a person’s social, behavioral and communication skills globally. Early diagnosis of ASD is critical for interventions within children on the spectrum. The intervention can teach children to operate successfully in the world. Iran is making great strides to improve the treatment and diagnosis of autism using education and technology.
The Need For Improvement
Measuring the prevalence of autism in low and middle-income countries can be challenging due to a lack of universal guidelines for diagnosing autism.
Iran has only published one study showing the prevalence of ASD in Iran in 2012. This study found that approximately 0.06% of Iranian children are on the autism spectrum against the global average of 1%. With a population of nearly 84 million, outside studies estimate that the rate of autism in Iran is closer to 90 per 10,000 children or 0.9%.
As a middle-income country, Iran has struggled to meet the needs of its autistic population. While children can receive an autism diagnosis as early as 2 years old, most Iranian children on the spectrum do not obtain a diagnosis until 5 or 6 years old. Iran ASD screening procedures do not undergo implementation until the “pre-school medical examination,” which is not a requirement until first-grade registration.
United States-based international autism advocacy charity, Autism Speaks stated that early intervention of autism “can improve learning, communication and social skills, as well as underlying brain development.” The Hope Source is an autism treatment center located in Indianapolis, Indiana. Assistant Director Angel Brown states that early diagnosis can improve the long-term happiness and quality of life of individuals with autism. Brown also stresses that it is never too late for treatment as late diagnoses only take “longer to meet their benchmarks” with longer treatments.
Unfortunately, longer treatment times do result in higher costs. On average, a child with autism accumulates $60,000 per year in therapeutic services. However, the early intervention of ASD can decrease the extended need for speech therapy, occupational therapy and special education later in life. A study estimated that each child with autism could save up to $19,000 through earlier diagnosis.
Improvements in Diagnosis
Nonprofit advocacy organization Iran Autism Association (IAA) stated that people with autism were not recognized as “incurable” in Iran until 2019. Since achieving this milestone, many improvements have occurred in diagnosis.
In 2018, Iranian behavioral specialists developed a comprehensive system that uses technology to assess and diagnose ASD in kindergarteners. The smart system uses interactive games to analyze the behaviors of young children. Furthermore, the system operates independently and does not need management from physicians, which increases accessibility and allows for widespread implementation across Iran.
While improvements are still needed in the area of early screening and diagnosis of autism, Iran is making efforts to advance research and develop innovative technology to meet the needs of its autistic population.
Improvements in Treatment
Once a child has received a diagnosis of autism, experts recommend that treatment begins immediately. Autism Speaks found that early intervention provides “the best opportunity to support healthy development and deliver benefits across the lifespan.” Unfortunately, treatment is not always widely available for people with autism in Iran.
Brown found that a lack of access to treatment for her clients would have a “detrimental effect on the quality of life.” Brown explains that failure to intervene and provide treatment would negatively affect the ASD client and the entire family unit. This is why it is critical to establish treatment centers and schools for people with autism in Iran.
Schools for Children with ASD
As of 2021, Iran had established 47 schools for children with ASD. Unfortunately, the ASD schools only provide educational services to around 3,000 students or a fraction of the population of autism in Iran. Considering the timeline of acknowledgment and advocacy of autism in Iran, the establishment of autism-specific schools in Iran is good progress.
It was not until 2018 that a treatment center emerged in Iran which offered a more holistic approach to autism intervention, similar to The Hope Source. Brown states that it is critical to address all the needs of children on the spectrum beyond behavior 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 children with autism in the city of Qazvin. A highlight of the center entitled “The Autism Room” uses technology in interesting ways. Due to how people with ASD struggle with senses and are prone to overstimulation, “The Autism Room” aims to eliminate any overwhelming sensory factors including sound, smell and light. The room works to calm the individual and help the people focus for training in special aid exercises, which helps the people control their body movements. Finally, the high-tech room can transform to demonstrate sensory overload to people not on the spectrum, increasing empathy, understanding and advocacy.
Similar to many low and middle-income countries, the investment of autism services in Iran had a late start compared to most high-income nations. However, since the acknowledgment of autism as an especial and incurable disease in 2019, Iran has made efforts to meet the needs of people with ASD. Early diagnosis and intervention have been the primary effort focus while the IAA has succeeded in exempting autistic boys from military service and collaborating with the police to find and safely interact with missing persons who have ASD.
– Hannah Gage