Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) is a mountainous region in Northern Pakistan. In addition to its remoteness, it is known for its challenging terrain, limited accessibility and harsh weather conditions. Due to geographic, economic, and demographic peculiarities, the region has had a history of falling short on basic human needs like nutrition, health, and education. Fortunately, with the collaborative efforts of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community forums, a promising silver lining emerges on the horizon.
In July 2023, Commander Force Command Northern Areas (FCNA) established an Autism institute by name of SAIL (Center of Autism and Integrated Learning) for autistic children of Gilgit-Baltistan. The mission of SAIL revolves around fostering understanding, providing support, and promoting inclusivity for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
ASD is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by challenges in social interaction, communication difficulties, and restricted or repetitive behaviors. Children with ASD can vary widely in their symptoms and abilities. Early diagnosis and intervention are crucial for improved outcomes. Prevalence of Autism in Pakistan is not precisely known and estimates vary. CDC (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention) in the United States (U.S.) reported prevalence of approximately 1 in 36. However, Pakistan Autism Society estimates that about 350,000 children are suffering from ASD.
SAIL offers therapeutic interventions to enhance the well-being and development of children. It is the only specialized institute for ASD children in the region. To date, 21 children have been enrolled in the morning session and 8 in the evening, ranging in age from 2.5 to 10 years. The facilities include diagnostic services, sensory integration spaces, specialized classrooms, counseling services, and family support.
The Center offers five types of therapies: Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), Occupational Therapy (OT), Speech and Language Therapy, Physical Therapy, and Special Education.
ABA. It focuses on understanding and modifying behavior through systematic interventions. ABA involves breaking down skills or behaviors into smaller components and using positive reinforcement to encourage desired behaviors while minimizing undesirable ones.
Occupational Therapy. It aims to improve the ability to participate in daily life activities. Therapy is focused on enhancing skills related to self-care, play, and social interaction. To help autistic children navigate and engage effectively in various environments, it involves sensory integration, motor skills, and adaptive behaviors. The goal is to promote independence and enhance quality of life.
Speech and Language Therapy. It addresses communication challenges. Therapists work on improving verbal and non-verbal communication skills, such as speech articulation, language comprehension, and pragmatic skills. The goal is to help children with Autism to express themselves more effectively and develop functional communication abilities.
Physical Therapy. It deals with motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and physical challenges of autistic children. Therapists work on improving gross and fine motor skills, balance, posture, and coordination.
Special Education. It is a tailored educational approach. It involves individualized instruction, accommodation, and support services to address academic, social, and behavioral challenges.
Therapists are highly qualified, with a deep understanding of ASD, and skilled in adapting interventions to individual needs. Therapy for ASD varies based on child’s needs. Every therapy session is 40 minutes long. The collaborative effect of these therapies creates a comprehensive and supportive environment where compassion meets expertise to create a heaven for children with ASD. The team of therapists maintains confidentiality, demonstrates ethical conduct, and creates a safe and supportive environment for clients. The effectiveness of the treatment is assessed on a regular basis by the program coordinator and project advisor. Interventions are tailored according to feedback and outcome. Periodic meetings are held among therapists to readjust the therapies.
The program fully involves parents and families as partners in their child's education, keeping them informed and engaged. Training for parents is an important aspect. A monthly parent-therapist meeting is held in the presence of the program coordinator, aiming to foster collaboration and understanding. It allows parents to gain insight into their child's progress, learn effective strategies for support, and enable therapists to gather valuable input from parents who know their child best. The partnership is essential for creating a holistic and tailored intervention plan to maximize the child's development and well-being.
Upcoming prospects of SAIL include an outreach program for awareness, acceptance, and screening in far-flung areas, holding workshops and seminars for active engagement of local community, and collaboration with mainstream schools to implement inclusive education practices. Moreover, collaboration with local communities, government, and stakeholders aims to ensure effective policies, adequate funding, and a supportive environment for the successful operation of other Autism institutes in the region. The future looks promising when the program adapts to evolving research, embraces technological advancements, fosters collaboration, stays connected globally, and addresses the diverse and changing needs of children with ASD across their lifespan.
As SAIL spreads its sails for the voyage ahead, Commander FCNA has graciously approved the establishment of another institute in Skardu in 2024. The second campus will contribute to the positive impact of the initiative on a broader scale, ensuring increased accessibility. It is hoped that the center serves as an example to be followed. The public and private sectors must join hands in providing comprehensive diagnosis, educational, and support services for autistic children and families across hard-to-reach areas in GB.
The establishment and replication of the Autism Institute play a pivotal role in addressing the complex needs of children with ASD and their families. These institutes foster a conducive environment emphasizing individualized learning, social skill development, and a holistic approach to address the unique needs of children with Autism.
Autism is not a flaw; it is a different kind of perfection, a spectrum of extraordinary minds painting the world with unique colors of brilliance. Parenting an autistic child is not about molding them into the world's idea of "normal" but about helping them become the extraordinary individuals they are destined to be. As we continue to recognize the diversity within the autism community, investing in and expanding such endeavors remains vital for promoting inclusivity and empowering children with ASD to reach their full potential.