ASDRC Blogs for Autism
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World Autism Awareness Day, observed every year on April 2, was introduced for the first time by the UN in 2008 to highlight the concern of the world community for affected children and adults. This welcome step was taken at a time when the number of persons on the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) was reported to be growing at a staggering pace and there were alarm bells ringing in developed and underdeveloped countries.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder which affects the brain in areas of social interaction and communication skills.
Read: The autism puzzle
In severe cases, a child is unable to communicate either through language or gesture, and there is lack of understanding of the outside world leading to bizarre behaviour, tantrums, self-injury and isolation. In persons with moderate autism, verbal language or communication can be developed through specific intervention programmes, while persons with mild autism can usually be trained to take up jobs and live independently.
The UN has designated employment as the theme for World Autism Awareness Day 2015, as it is estimated that more than 80pc of adults with autism are unemployed, even though many of them have special strengths such as a photographic memory, pattern recognition and logical reasoning that make them suited to certain kinds of employment in which mechanical activities are involved, such as data entry, laboratory work, ledger maintenance, proofreading, etc.
Sadly, adults with autism have no place in corporate culture.
There are many obstacles to employment of adults with autism in Pakistan. Poor schooling and educational facilities top the list as the government allocation for education is one of the lowest in the world; there is a general shortage of vocational training, no job-placement systems, no enabling infrastructure, and pervasive social and official discrimination.
After the 18th Amendment, there is no national policy for persons with disabilities, nor is there any focal ministry to look after their affairs at the centre, while the provincial governments are completely disorganised, with multiple departments being assigned to look after their affairs in an extremely haphazard manner.
To make matters worse, the Securities and Exchange Commission revised its corporate social responsibility voluntary guidelines in 2013, deleting all mention of employment of special persons, which was there in the order of 2009. The guidelines need to be amended and the business community sensitised on this issue, since at present most companies do not fulfil the 2pc quota of jobs for persons with disabilities, and are willing to pay a nominal fine to the government as penalty.
Even this paltry fine cannot be used by the National Council for Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons for creating supported employment due to some bureaucratic glitch. It should be mentioned that in France, the quota for persons with disabilities is 6pc and the penalty is 600 to 1,500 times the hourly wage.
Under corporate social responsibility (CSR), a substantial contribution can be made by private-sector companies towards providing employment to adults with autism and other disabilities. However, although many national and multinational organisations have CSR policies that encompass environment protection, educational support, health, sports, welfare activities, relief, community service, etc, there is no mention of supported employment for disabled persons on their websites. The few exceptions appear to include Telenor, Burger King, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Hardee’s, Levi’s and KFC, who employ adults with disabilities.
To mark World Autism Awareness Day, Microsoft Corp has announced a policy of employing persons with autism, in collaboration with Specialisterne, a Danish foundation focusing on providing jobs for persons with autism. Last year, Microsoft was the first company in the US to offer insurance coverage for applied behavioural analysis, which is a very expensive therapy for children with autism. This initiative led other tech companies such as Apple, Intel, Cisco and Oracle to embrace the same policy. Interestingly, there is a higher incidence of autism in children whose parents are employed in the computer business, especially in Silicon Valley, because ‘geeks’ — highly intelligent computer wizards — are also likely to be suffering from Asperger’s or on the autism spectrum.
In Pakistan, adults with autism have no place in corporate culture or society as there is neither government nor societal support for them. They are in fact, a stigma. However, apart from the moral imperative of providing persons with disabilities to earn their living with dignity, there is also an economic argument for facilitating their employment. According to The Economist Intelligence Unit’s report for the British Council on Mainstreaming Persons with Disabilities in Pakistan, their exclusion ultimately means economic losses of between $11.9 billion to $15.4bn per year, or 4.9pc to 6.3pc of Pakistan’s GDP. This data in itself should prevent the government from following a path of isolation from mainstream global development initiatives.
The writer is a former federal secretary.
Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2015