Autism: the disability of this century

By Shae Courtney | 05 Nov 12

By Shae Courtney. This article is part of our October focus on Disability Rights. Read more about this topic here.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is the fastest growing disability in the Western world, yet there is no known cure and treating it is an ongoing scientific battle. Prevalence of ASD currently affects one in 90 children in the United States. Australia and other developed nations are showing similarly alarming levels of autism.

Richard Volker from the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations told Right Now:

The Australian Government supports the rights of children with a disability to have the same educational opportunities as other children. In response to the increasing prevalence of children with autism spectrum disorder in Australia, the Australian Government is providing targeted support for these children. Under this package, the Department is delivering the Positive Partnerships initiative, which aims to build partnerships between schools and families to improve the educational outcomes of students with autism spectrum disorder.

Like any other disability, autism does not preclude social, civil, economic, political and cultural rights. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), those with disabilities are entitled to the rights afforded to others without such impairment.

Article 3 of the UDHR states: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

Article 25 states, by extension:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Since the enshrinment of the UDHR in domestic laws, there has been, to varying degrees across the globe, a greater understanding of autism and other disabilities. In 2006, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted and its introduction further bolstered existing legislation protecting those afflicted with ASD and other disabilities. However, there remains much work to tighten the social safety net for the most vulnerable citizens, especially children, to ensure they are catered for within the educational system.

The ABC’s Four Cornersprogram recently aired The Autism Enigma. Scientists in the United States and Great Britain linked the disorder to a gut bacteria. There were higher than average quantaties of people with autism in Somalian refugees living in the Canadian city of Toronto. It was postulated that the switch to a Western diet may have caused the occurrence of autism in these refugees.

Perhaps most startlingly, Four Corners narrated the story of Ellen Bolte and her quest to find a cure for her son’s autism, which she claims began after a course of antibiotics in his formative years. Bolte, in collaboration with leaders in the field autism treatment, trialled the use of Vancomycin in suppressing bacteria of the Clostridia group. The change in her son’s responsiveness was almost immediate. Bolte noticed her son would listen and respond to people. Bolte knew that her son could not remain indefinitely on Vancomycin. As soon as the course was completed, Bolte’s son relapsed into his former disruptive self, exhibiting all the traits of autism which the Chicago-based mother had sought to cure. Clostridia bacteria had emerged from remission and were again causing her son to behave abnormally.

In Australia, there are a number of initiatives being developed to further support children afflicted with autism. A Department of Education spokesman told Right Now these include:

a. The More Support for Students with Disabilities initiative which is providing $200 million in additional funding to government and non-government education authorities over the next two years to support their work with students with disabilities and/or learning difficulties. Services are being delivered in the 2012 and 2013 school years.

b. the National Plan for School Improvement

c. the Review of the Disability Standards for Education

d. the introduction of the Australian Curriculum

e. the National Professional Standards for Teachers

Whilst the Department of Education has made good progress and built upon the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, a discussion paper was released in 2011 reviewing the shortcomings of provision for those with disabilities in Australian schools. Amongst other recommendations, the review urged a greater focus on implementing the standards tabled in relevant legislation and in accordance with the Disability Standards for Education 2005. Moreover, there is too often maladminstration of the legal precedent in the provision of care for children with disabilities arising from miscommunication between state and federal governments, and the non-profit and philanthropic sectors, according to the 2011 review.

There is growing supranational cooperation, particularly in this region, via the Asia Pacific Autism Conference (APAC). In August 2013, it will be held in Adelaide. Amaze, formerly Autism Victoria, told Right Now that APAC is a particularly beneficial way to share new scientific data and methods of good practice on the disorder.

Shae Courtney is a British undergraduate student of the University of Melbourne, majoring in English, and previously studied at Queen Mary, University of London. He is an aspiring journalist and a research associate at the New Zealand Centre for Human Rights Law, Policy and Practice at the University of Auckland. Shae has a particular interest in current affairs, human rights legislation and international diplomacy.

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