A Qatar Foundation (QF) scientist has highlighted the need to restore services for people with autism at the earliest, as Covid-19 related treatments and vaccine developments were priorities for the entire world in the last 18 months.
“Every step of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) journey took a hit in the past 18 months, whether diagnosis, treatment or research,” said Dr Fouad al-Shaban, senior scientist at the Neurological Disorders Research Centre at the Qatar Biomedical Research Institute (QBRI) at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, part of QF.
According to a survey conducted in Qatar by Dr al-Shaban, 80% of children with ASD have not had access to a qualified specialist since the pandemic began. Over 50% of the respondents said they had noticed a regression in their child’s previously gained skills.
The survey was conducted in collaboration with Qatar Autism Family Association and QF’s World Innovation Summit for Health to evaluate how Covid-19 control measures impacted individuals with ASD and their families in Qatar. 156 families took part in the first round of the survey. ASD prevalence in Qatar is reported to be one in every 87 children.
A respondent of the survey said: “The pandemic has added more stress to an already stressful situation. Children with autism have daily routines, and when that routine is disrupted it has a mental and physical effect on the families and the child. Life is difficult with autism, and with the pandemic it's been impossible to have any normalcy whatsoever. More support needs to be made available for children with ASD.”
“Lack of outings and staying at home has caused a negative shift for us as a family and for our child. His skills and behaviour have changed and that is our main challenge; we are worried about how he will resume when life goes back to normal,” another respondent, added.
For most children with autism, it isn’t just that they have not been able to learn new skills, but that they have unlearned previously gained skills. “They are back at square one, which is obviously very frustrating for the parents,” said, Dr al-Shaban.
Local institutions, such as QF’s Renad Academy, Hamad Medical Corporation and Shafallah Centre have been trying their best to safely restore their services at the highest possible capacity in compliance with guidelines outlined by the Ministry of Public Health.
“Access to therapy is life-changing for kids with ASD, and not having access to it for prolonged periods will harm their chances in life,” said Dr al-Shaban.
As restrictions ease, therapy has been made available to some extent, but the backlog of 18 months means the demand is much more than the supply. “We need more therapists to help these children catch up as best as we can and as soon as we can,” he maintained,.
Another major cause of concern is all the kids that have gone undiagnosed since the pandemic started. Timing is crucial for ASD diagnosis. The earlier a child is diagnosed, the better their chances of improvement.
“The learning curve of a child diagnosed at 12 months is hugely different from a child diagnosed at two or three years. For children with ASD, every month counts when it comes to diagnosis,” remarked the scientist.
Dr al-Shaban stressed that urgent action must be taken, both locally and globally, to ensure services for those with ASD are safely restarted at maximum capacity as soon as possible. “The consequences of not doing so will be grave not just for the children with ASD but for their families and society as a whole,” he added.