INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana — According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in 160 children will be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is a developmental disorder that manifests differently in each individual and generally affects a person’s social, behavioral, and communication skills globally. Early diagnosis of ASD is critical to interventions in children on the spectrum. The intervention can teach children to function successfully in the world. Iran is making great strides to improve autism treatment and diagnosis through education and technology.
The need for improvement
Measuring the prevalence of autism in low- and middle-income countries can be challenging due to the lack of general 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, compared to the global average of 1%. With a population of nearly 84 million, external studies estimate that Iran’s autism rate is 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 do not receive a diagnosis until they are 5 or 6 years old. Iran’s ASD screening procedures are performed only at the “Preschool Medical Examination,” which is not required until registration in the first grade.
The US-based international autism charity, Autism Speaks, stated that early intervention in autism “can improve learning, communication and social skills and underlying brain development.” The Hope Source is an autism treatment center in Indianapolis, Indiana. Associate Director Angel Brown explains that early diagnosis can improve long-term happiness and quality of life for people with autism. Brown also emphasizes that it’s never too late for treatment, as late diagnoses with longer treatments just “take longer to reach their benchmarks.”
Unfortunately, longer treatment times lead to higher costs. On average, a child with autism raises $60,000 a year in therapeutic benefits. However, early intervention of ASD may reduce the expanded need for speech therapy, occupational therapy, and special education later in life. One study estimates each child with autism could save up to $19,000 by being diagnosed earlier.
improvements in diagnostics
The non-profit advocacy group Iran Autism Association (IAA) said people with autism were not recognized as “incurable” in Iran until 2019. Many improvements in diagnostics have occurred since this milestone was reached.
In 2018, Iranian behavior specialists developed a comprehensive system using technology to assess and diagnose ASD in kindergarten children. The intelligent system uses interactive games to analyze young children’s behavior. Additionally, the system operates independently and requires no management by physicians, increasing accessibility and allowing for widespread implementation across Iran.
While improvements are still needed in the field of early detection and diagnosis of autism, Iran is making efforts to advance research and develop innovative technologies to meet the needs of its autistic population.
improvements in treatment
Once a child is diagnosed with autism, experts recommend starting treatment right away. Autism Speaks noted that early intervention “provides the best opportunity to support healthy development and achieve benefits throughout the lifespan.” Unfortunately, treatment for people with autism is not always widely available in Iran.
Brown noted that her clients’ lack of access to treatments would have “an adverse impact on their quality of life.” Brown states that failure to intervene and provide treatment would negatively impact the ASD client and the entire family unit. For this reason, it is important to set up 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 autistic population in Iran. Considering the timeline for autism recognition and advocacy in Iran, the establishment of autism-specific schools in Iran is good progress.
As recently as 2018, a treatment center emerged in Iran that offered a more holistic approach to autism intervention, similar to The Hope Source. Brown notes that it is critical to address all children’s needs on the spectrum beyond behavioral therapy. The new treatment center offered a variety of services including occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy 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, titled “The Autism Room,” uses technology in interesting ways. Because of the way people with ASD struggle with their senses and tend to be overstimulated, The Autism Room aims to eliminate all overpowering sensory factors such as sound, smell and light. The space calms the person and helps people focus on training in special auxiliary exercises that help people control their body movements. Finally, the high-tech space can morph to demonstrate sensory overload to people who are not on the spectrum, increasing empathy, understanding, and advocacy.
Similar to many low- and middle-income countries, investment in autism services in Iran got off to a late start compared to most high-income countries. However, since recognizing 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 the focus of efforts, while the IAA has been able to exempt autistic boys from military service and work with police to locate and safely interact with missing individuals with ASD.
– Hannah Gage