In March 2021, the 33-year-old heard the word autism for the first time in northern Baek Kan province.
“Then I found out why my son was acting strangely,” he says.
Cam Thi Huan in northwestern Son La province was horrified by the unexpected actions of her autistic son.
Once, when he was two years old, he suddenly ran into the middle of the road, forcing the driver of a container truck to slam the brakes hard, causing the vehicle to overturn. Thankfully the vehicle stopped on time and the boy was not harmed.
Truong, the four-year-old son of Cam Thi Huen, in Hanoi where he was undergoing treatment for autism in 2020. Photo courtesy of Huyen
In a rural area dominated by Thai ethnicity, issues of slowing down a child’s way of walking or speaking are often overlooked.
Huen’s son Truong, is a prime example. He does not walk until he is two years old, whereas neurotic children begin between eight and 19 months.
Neighbors encouraged him, saying that he would walk away “sooner or later”. But a mother’s instincts told him that something was unusual, and when he was 31 months old, she took him to Hanoi for an exam.
“That was when I found out about autism,” says the 32-year-old.
She was distraught and didn’t know if it could be fixed or what she could do to help her child.
Tran Thi Hoan did not know why his grandson was so mischievous in the town of Plei Kan in Kon Tum province, 18 km from the Laos-Cambodia border.
From the moment he learned to crawl, Phuoc threw bowls and chopsticks around the house and broke the baby’s crawling barriers to get out.
No matter how hard Hoan tried, he didn’t listen to the instructions. When he was a little over two, she took him to the hospital where he was diagnosed with autism.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological disorder characterized by difficulties with social interaction and communication and repetitive and narrow-minded behaviors, interests, and activities. It has a wide range of symptoms and varying degrees of severity.
Doctors determined Trung and Hua’s condition to be critical, but said it could be improved with active intervention.
Phuoc’s condition is classified as moderate, meaning that prompt and long-term intervention can reduce his distractible behavior and improve focus.
Autistic children are often afraid of various noises such as pouring water and engage in behaviors such as banging their head on the wall when distressed.
“Children with autism have these characteristics because their brains develop differently from children with disabilities,” explains Ha Thi Nu Quinn, a special education teacher in Hanoi.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ASD affects 2–7 percent of children worldwide, and boys are four times more likely to be affected than girls.
There is no official data on children with ASD in Vietnam, but according to 2019 figures from the Office of General Statistics, 6.2 million people aged two years and older were disabled, which is about 6.5 percent of the population, which includes about one million people. Huh. with self-centeredness.
According to a 2020 data, 30 percent of children with disabilities in schools have autism.
“These figures do not accurately reflect reality because many children are undiagnosed or do not attend school,” says Pham Thi Kim Tam, president of the Vietnam Autism Network and administrator of an online forum for parents with autistic children that has 36,000 members. Huh.”
The number of children brought to the Vietnam National Children’s Hospital in Hanoi for autism evaluation and treatment is increasing by 10-20 percent every year.
Of the 22,000 children who visit a psychiatric specialist in a hospital each year, a third are diagnosed as autistic. Its psychiatry department has special education classes for autistic children, about 400 of whom are provided interventions each year, most of whom are critically ill or come from remote areas.
According to Quynh, many parents, especially in mountainous areas, are slow to recognize their children’s symptoms.
Even when a child shows autistic symptoms, it is difficult to make an accurate diagnosis due to the lack of doctors or specialists with the necessary qualifications.
Schools and the availability of qualified specialized teachers are also major concerns, and the result is many non-specialist teachers, including teachers without expertise, who are hired to teach autistic children.
One family in Hanoi’s Sok Son district complained that her twins had been diagnosed with different levels of severity, but the intervention by the district medical center was exactly the same for both for nine months.
“It was a waste of our children’s golden years as well as our money,” says their mother.
Since she lives in the Central Highlands, Hone was unable to find a special education school for her grandson to attend.
After more than a year of deliberation, she and her daughter decided to travel to Hanoi for Phuoc to pack their bags and study at a special education center in Dong Anh province.
The boy’s communication skills have improved significantly after 10 months. Although he completed the program, Hone decided to keep his grandson at the center until the pre-primary stage so that he could further improve his skills.
Hone says: “The savings my daughter, who works as a factory worker, had spent in Phuoc’s special education classes in the capital over the years have all been spent. But for us, it it is worth”.
As for Truong’s parents, they are saddened to see that their child has missed the “golden period” of intervention.
After the boy was diagnosed with autism, Huen sent his child to four schools, two in the city of Son La Town and two in Hanoi. But the boy hasn’t made much progress.
In addition to parents’ lack of knowledge about ASD, social biases also prevent autistic children from integrating into society.
“Many parents have told me that when their child was diagnosed with autism, the people around them said that they had probably committed many bad deeds in their life and therefore it is the karma that their child committed. Ended up with disorder,” Tam says.
People, because of ASD’s ignorance, also blame parents for not bringing up their children well, as found by Huen.
Often Truong hits her while returning from school on the bus and all she can do is hug her and try to calm her down. When something triggers her, she runs off to the middle of the road, oblivious to the dangers, and she can only comfort him by sitting in the middle of the road.
To keep her son safe, she uses a cloth to tie his hands before taking him down from her motorcycle.
Some people don’t understand his behavior and his reactions, and blame him for not educating him properly and allowing him to behave badly. Others, upon learning that the child has autism, say, “You shouldn’t have let him spend too much time with the phone”.
Such misconceptions about the disorder are widespread, with many believing that it is caused by excessive use of electronic devices or that it can be “cured”.
Pao suspects that his son’s condition was one of the reasons his wife left him.
When he was working as a construction worker in Algeria, his wife would often send him videos of Hua, in which his head was hit against a wall and his forehead was covered with bruises and wounds.
Then he learns that his children have been neglected, and he immediately returns home. He and his wife went to court a month later and divorced, and he has been raising their three children ever since.
Hua, 6, on a mud road in the rural district of Ba Bay in Baak Kan province in March, 2022. Photo courtesy of Pao
Unable to bear the thought of being separated from Hua, Pao arranged for her to attend the Education Center for Disabled Children in Baek Kan Province. He applied for the first year working as a security guard at the education center to be closer to his son. After a year he felt confident about leaving the child alone at the center and looking for a job elsewhere.
“Each autistic child lives in their own world separate from their parents,” Tam, who has a 20-year-old autistic child, explains.
She hopes that parents won’t get discouraged or give up in the middle of an arduous journey as their children make slow progress.
Early and continued intervention is by far the most effective way to help autistic children develop and, in many cases, become self-sufficient in adulthood.
After more than three years of intervention, Phuoc was able to return home to attend regular kindergarten in August 2020. He is currently in first grade and is absorbing information faster than some of his classmates.
His grandmother says: “However, his condition has not completely gone away. When he is angry, he grows up and is unable to speak in full sentences. In addition, he still has comparisons to his friends. I have poor social skills”.
Huyen looks forward to Truong returning to school after almost a year at home.
“Sometimes I wish the pandemic would never spread and my family had enough money to send my child to a regular special education school. Maybe he’s reading and writing better now.”