By Jassim Mater
Treatment for autism in the region has progressed, but lack of awareness and support services remains a challenge.
Autism is one of many mental disorders that can be affected by living in a volatile environment – which is the case in much of the Middle East. “Available scientific evidence suggests that various factors, both genetic and environmental, contribute to the onset of autism spectrum disorders by influencing early brain development,” said Khaled Saeed, a regional adviser for the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean offices. “Rates of mental disorder are significantly higher in countries with complex emergencies.”
“For example, 37.4 percent of Iraqi schoolchildren were estimated to be suffering from mental disorders; 54.4 percent of Palestinian boys and 46.5 percent of Palestinian girls were estimated to have emotional and behavioural disorders.”
Although autism-specific statistics on the Middle East are lacking, WHO estimates place the 12-month prevalence of mental disorders for the region between 11-40 percent, well above the global average of 4.3-26.4 percent.
Saeed added that the gap between the care needed for mental health issues and what is available is wider in poorer countries than in their affluent counterparts. “Autism spectrum disorders impose a huge emotional and economic burden on families. Caring for children with these disorders is demanding, especially where access to services and support is inadequate,” Saeed said.
Services are lacking in many more affluent Middle Eastern countries as well.