It was a usual Thursday afternoon when Pham Thi Hoa took her four-year-old son, Tran Thanh Tung, to his "classroom" at the Physiotherapy Department in the Ha Noi-based National Hospital of Paediatrics.
by Nguyen Minh Thu
Children receive medical checks at Ha Noi's Hope Centre, which specialises in rehabilitating autistic and mentally retarded children. Many parents with autistic sons or daughters do not know how to provide adequate care for their children. — VNA/VNS Photo Duong Ngoc
HA NOI —
The boy seemed rather indifferent to his new surroundings, so his mother made a couple of careful recommendations about his care before she left. But he hardly showed any expression as she departed.
Later in the day, Tung was diagnosed as being autistic.
Today, the word autistic is familiar to most Vietnamese, thanks to widespread information in the media. However, treatment for those born with the problem is still poor, largely due to poor knowledge by parents.
Many of them ignore abnormal signs shown by their children. They often switch to superstition instead of medicine to fix things.
"My mother-in-law wouldn't let me take Tung to hospital. She said the more slowly a child spoke, the richer he would become," said Hoa.
Now Hoa is blaming herself for not taking her son to the hospital one or two years earlier when she found out that he was not learning to speak.
Hoa is not the only mother who puts her trust in the supernatural when things get difficult.
Instead of seeing doctors and psychologist, they spend a fortune for "cuop qua" (taking gifts), a type of worship conducted by a shaman for their children to start speaking. "I sold three cows and killed one for the shaman. My son is still not talking," said a father from northern Thai Nguyen province.
This way of thinking is not easy to change, especially in rural and remote areas. Meanwhile, a lot of citizens hold a prejudice against autistic children. A teacher from Tuoi Ngoc Kindergarten, a special school for disabled and autistic children in HCM City, said that whenever she took the children outside, people looked at them cruelly, calling them "crazy" and keeping well away from them.
"Other kids often laugh and make jokes about autistic children, just as their parents do," she said. "People have to understand that being different doesn't mean that these children do not deserve care, concern and love from the community," she said.
Dr La Thi Buoi, director of Ha Noi-based Tuna Clinic, one of the most prestigious centres for autistic children in the north, said misconceptions about autism were pushing these children further far away from the community - and burying their parents' hope. Most parents feel shocked when they find the truth. Some of them give up because they can't afford the treatment, but most try their best to fight for their children's welfare.
Autistic children vary in the degree of sympoms, but they generally all fail to achieve social and communication skills. Looking into the classrooms, we can see children playing with a piece of cardboard for hours, another who won't stop flapping his hands or even one who keeps hitting his head on the wall.
"Autistic children don't know how to communicate with others and express what they want. That's why they often become stubborn and naughty," said Buoi. That is why most psychologists and teachers struggle to treat them.
"They cry all day long and do not listen," said a teacher from Tuna Clinic. "It takes a long time, almost a year in some cases, to gain their trust. After that, we are able to teach them the basic things, such as looking into a person's eyes when talking or saying yes or no."
Mothers also have to learn how to play and to teach their children at home. They are shown how to attract their child's attention when they are performing repetitive actions, or using colour pictures to draw them closer to their surroundings.
Quach Thuy Minh, head of the National Hospital of Paediatric's Physiotherapy Department, said busy lives from morning to night prevented most parents from spending time with their children. Some parents could not spare even one or two hours to play with their children.
And Minh said that after children turned three, it was difficult to try and intervene, meaning that the children had less chance to adapt to normal life. Since the signs of autism can easily be seen in the first two years of a child's life, Minh suggested that parents who were worried should get advise early from hospitals, psychological centres or from parental forums. "To overcome the problems, what we need is not modern facilities, but patience and feeling for the child," said Minh.
Hoa and her son, Tung, have been trying to show people that their child's problem will never knock them out. "If your child has autism, don't avoid the truth, but live with it and fight it. Children are our lives. I believe true miracles will come when we try our best," said Hoa. — VNS