“By analysing the national gross birth rate per year, we are looking at around 8,000 to 9,000 born yearly that may have autism in Malaysia,” said National Autism Society of Malaysia (Nasom) chairman Feilina S.Y. Muhammad Feisol.
There is no official registry for the number of individuals diagnosed with autism in Malaysia. However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 1 in 160 children has ASD and its prevalence appears to be increasing globally.
The United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabili-ties Monitoring network put the figure higher at about 1 in 59 children.
According to WHO, there are many possible explanations for this spike including expansion of diagnostic criteria, better diagnostic tools and improved reporting.
Clinical psychologist Dr Kartini Ilias from Universiti Teknologi Mara’s Health Sciences Faculty noted that the rise in the country could also be due to parents who were now more aware of the condition.
“Doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists have reported an increase in the number of children with ASD symptoms being referred to their clinics,” she said.
This has led to a growing demand for early intervention centres and specialist pre-schools.
Feilina believe this could be a good thing as it would mean that help and intervention could happen sooner.
She explained that early intervention was when a child with special needs between the ages of two and six was given behavioural and social education in preparation for schooling.
“For a child with autism, they sometimes do not know what is right, wrong, good or bad behaviour. Early intervention is when the child’s mind is at its most receiving and teachers can educate a child with autism on how to conform to societal norms,” said Feilina, urging for more government-run early-intervention centres and accredited specialist centres.
Currently, public and government-run early intervention centres specifically for children below seven with autism are limited.
While the government provides pre-school options for special needs students in general, there is only one purpose-built early-intervention centre catering specifically for children with autism, the Pusat Genius Kurnia in Kuala Lumpur.
Feilina said several non-governmental organisations including Nasom had tried to meet the need by opening up early-intervention centres nationwide but they were struggling either with funding or logistical issues.
The other option can be pricey. Private centres charge around RM150 per hour for specialised therapy sessions, or up to thousands monthly.
This meant that parents from low to lower-middle income or non-urban backgrounds were hard-pressed to find or afford professional assistance for their children, she added.
The Genius Kurnia management agrees that there is a necessity for more centres nationwide.
“When our waiting lists open in November, we immediately get over 300 applications,” the management told Sunday Star, adding that the spots fill up quickly and applications close after two weeks.
It added that there were also many parents from outside Kuala Lumpur who had uprooted their families to the city so that their child could attend Genius Kurnia.
To address increasing demand, two more Genius Kurnia centres are in the works; one in Kedah and another in Melaka, said the Education Ministry’s Genius Division.
In Putrajaya, an Integrated Early Childhood Education Centre, which can accommodate 134 children with autism alongside another 266 students, is expected to be completed by the end of this year.
“What we need is more government-run early intervention centres, preferably one in every state to start with,” said Feilina.
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