It is estimated that 1% of the world’s population suffers from an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, according to Nino Darsavelidze, Director of the Autism Society of Georgia (ASG), “autism awareness in Georgia is still very low.”
To help get the word out, the Coalition for Autism (CfA), a EWMI grantee, organized activities in five cities across Georgia on April 2 for World Autism Awareness Day. Ms. Darsavelidze’s organization is part of the CfA, and helped mobilize the media, regional communities, public schools, education teams, and medical professionals to raise autism awareness throughout the country.
One of the CfA’s priorities is to advocate for the creation of better autism policies by the Georgian government. This includes addressing the human rights issues and social stigmas that are commonly associated with people affected by autism. “Right now, those with autism cannot receive disability status in Georgia,” Darsavelidze said, adding “at present, there is no money allocated in the state budget for autism.” The CfA’s advocacy efforts may be helping to change that, as the government has recently agreed to draft legislation that provides a legal status for people with autism.
In order to address autism’s social stigmas, Darsavelidze looks to the parents as an important resource. “Parents of autistic children are the best advocates for their children. They shouldn’t have to hide their children. Unless you talk about autism publicly and explain what autism is, society will remain afraid,” she said.
With this in mind, the CfA staged a photo exhibition featuring children with autism in Tbilisi on World Autism Day. “This exhibition was very important. Autism is not just a diagnosis… it’s a person. When you are trying to raise the awareness of autism, you have to show the face,” Darsavelidze said.
One of the key challenges for people with autism in Georgia is obtaining early diagnosis and treatment. According to Dr. Maia Gabunia from the Association of Child Neurologists and Neurosurgeons, there is a lack of certified professionals in Georgia with knowledge of autism. “Currently, diagnosis can only be done in Tbilisi,” she said.
However, with the help of an Partnership for Change (PFC) grant, through EWMI’s Policy, Advocacy, and Civil Society Development Program in Georgia (G-PAC) they are now providing autism training abroad for Georgian professionals. Dr. Gabunia notes that while diagnosis is important, “the most important aspect is still early treatment.”
“The severity of the disability largely depends on early identification and early intervention,” Darsavelidze emphasized. “The most important thing is raising the knowledge of autism among family doctors and pediatricians so they can identify young children at risk. The training of doctors and national policy changes make it possible to use the autism screening tool as a routine assessment for all children aged 8-24 months,” she added.
Overall, the PfC grant has greatly helped the CfA campaign raise awareness within the community and pay for the professional training courses and media tools crucial for improving autism awareness in Georgia. For more information, visit www.autism.ge.