Autism on the rise in Vietnam: conference

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Unofficial figures imply a rapid increase in the number of autistic children in Vietnam, but the country lacks experts and standard autism intervention programs.

Saigon Tiep Thi newspaper Wednesday quoted a study from the National Hospital of Pediatrics as saying that the number of children diagnosed with autism at the Hanoi-based hospital's Physiotherapy Department in 2007 was 50 times higher than in 2000.

In a Hanoi district, 10 percent of 733 disabled children had the developmental disorder, according to the study reported at a conference on care and education for autistic children organized in the capital city on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, in Ho Chi Minh City, 324 autistic children received treatment at local hospitals in 2008, a 160-fold increase from just two in 2000.

Speaking at the conference, Dr. Do Thuy Lan from the Morning Star Center for children with intellectual disabilities in Hanoi said statistics on autism are yet to be available in Vietnam.

But, based on the rate of autistic people to the total population in the UK, there could be some 160,000 people with the disorder in Vietnam, she said.

Appearing in the first three years of one's life, autism often involves problems with social and communication skills.

According to Lan, Vietnam not only fails to compile figures about autism, but also to standardize services and programs to detect autism and intervene with behavioral treatments and medicines.

At some clinics, doctors with a lack of experience and knowledge have mistaken autism for intellectual disabilities, she said.

In Hanoi, despite the capital's advanced clinics, not many doctors  are knowledgeable about the disorder and can give an accurate diagnosis, she cited.

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A 2009-2010 study on disabled children in Asia found 76.5 percent of 254 surveyed parents of autistic children in Vietnam said their kids' disorder was not detected until they were more than two years old.

Moreover, even though hundreds of centers claiming to treat autism have been founded in Vietnam since 1995 -- aside from kindergartens that claim to specialize in teaching autistic children --  the techniques used are varied and unregulated.

In fact, they are using a total of 12 different autism assessment tools imported from other countries like Australia, Japan, and the U.S. without translating them into Vietnamese, said Dr. Le Van Tac, director of the Research Center of Special Education.

This led to different centers performing different tests and drawing different conclusions on the same children, worrying parents who want to get second opinions on the matter.

Experts at the conference -- held by the Vietnam Institute of Educational Sciences, the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam, the United Nations Children's Fund, and the Autism Speaks -- also pointed out that most teachers of autistic children have no autism-specific training.

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