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School in Bangladesh builds confidence for autistic students – and their parents

Children diagnosed with autism are subject to discrimination, and their families may fear embarrassment. The Unique Gift Foundation teaches skills so the children can function independently. 

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Autistic students learn how to brush their teeth at a school in Bangladesh established by the Unique Gift Foundation. The school features specialized skill classes like this one to give children diagnosed with autism the tools they need to be independent members of society.

Courtesy of EAM Asaduzzaman

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No parent is ever prepared to hear that his or her child is anything other than happy and healthy. But there are many ways in which special education can help improve the quality of life for children who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The Unique Gift Foundation’s school in Saidpur, northern Bangladesh, is a helping hand to families of such children.

The Unique Gift Foundation is a nonprofit founded in 2012. Its mission is to offer support, giving children the confidence to perform day-to-day tasks without depending on their parents or others. The school was the first one dedicated entirely to autistic children to open in the Nilphamari district, the highest ranking region in education in the country, about 250 miles from Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital.

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The school’s founder, Tauhida Sultana, is a businesswoman who grew up in the same district as the school. She was motivated to establish it following her experiences with a nephew diagnosed with autism, and because she witnessed the distress of other families affected by the disorder. She recalls one family who kept their child hidden from guests, isolated and tied up in another room of the house.

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A UNICEF report published in 2014 estimates that between 1.4 percent and 17.5 percent of children in Bangladesh have special needs or disabilities – as many as 10 million children. The report notes that much work needs to be done to fully realize their rights. Many parents tend to hide their children’s disorders out of fear of embarrassment. The children often struggle with social skills, speech or nonverbal communication, as well as repetitive behavior.

Worldwide, 1 in every 160 children is said to have autism, and they are often subject to discrimination. But according to the World Health Organization, behavioral treatment and parental skills training programs can reduce these difficulties, and have a positive impact on well-being and quality of life.

Twice a year, the Unique Gift Foundation provides teacher training programs on child development, nutrition, psychology, and therapy. Teachers at the school learn to assess each student’s individual needs. Along with academics, the school offers classes in physical play, socializing through conversation, art, and music. Students also learn how to share their snacks, ride a bicycle, comb their hair, organize their books and bags, use the toilet, and say their prayers, among other things.

The school’s principal, Rubayatul Islam, says, “Children on the autism spectrum rarely like to interact with people of their own age. They might easily become angry and start a scuffle, so teachers need to calm them down.”

The stories of students at the Unique Gift Foundation school indicate that they can learn to adapt. Nine-year-old Nurul demanded a lot of attention from his parents. “He would break utensils and other things within his reach if we did not respond to his call. We did not care for his behavior and thought he would change as he grew older,” says Nurul’s father. When Nurul was 6, his parents put him in a regular school. His father recalls, “He would get into fights, scream, and bite others. The principal called me one day and asked me to take my son home because of his abnormal behavior.” Nurul’s parents enrolled him in the Unique Gift Foundation school. A year later, their son was friendly and calm with his fellow classmates.

Three-year-old Afia had a severe speech impairment along with acute attention deficit hyperactivity problems. She had a tendency to remain silent and isolated. Sohana Akhter, a teacher at the school, says, “Being friendly and loving with her, along with professional counseling, has brought changes in Afia’s behavior.” Afia now plays with other children, and can pronounce words such as “mother” and “water.” Though Ms. Sultana mostly funds the school, the children’s parents must pay a small fee to run the school, which currently has 33 students, 17 teachers, and eight staff members. People from the district and surrounding areas wanting to set up schools for autistic children frequently visit the school to learn about its methods.

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The foundation now aims to build an autism village in the same school district with modern facilities such as hospitals, computer labs, psychotherapy centers, playgrounds, and guest rooms.

This story was reported by The Daily Star, a news outlet in Bangladesh. The Monitor is publishing it as part of an international effort by more than 50 news organizations worldwide to promote solutions journalism. To read other stories in this joint project, please click here.