Finding Hope Early: SAAAC Walk-In Clinic
Written By: Sonieya Nagarajah
The term Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD- commonly referred to as autism) is known by some, but understood by only a few. Those who have heard about ASD know that it is a disorder, and are aware that diagnosed individuals do not always behave in the same way as their average peers. But what most do not know is that there is an under-diagnosis of ASD in visible minorities. Most do not know that children in immigrant families are less likely to receive an early diagnosis compared to other children. And most do not know how important an early diagnosis is for effective intervention.
The availability of government-funded autism therapy is limited for many families in Ontario, with families facing long wait times. However, immigrant families face additional barriers in accessing these already limited resources. This complicates their access to treatments and information, access that is crucial to understanding all the facets of the disorder, putting immigrant parents at a disadvantage when trying to help their child.
To address the needs of these immigrant families, the South Asian Autism Awareness Center (SAAAC) will be piloting their Walk-In Clinic. With the support of Autism Speaks Canada (who provided a Family Services Community Grant) and Computek College (who supplied a state of the art facility to hold the assessments) , the clinic targets low income and immigrant families. The Walk-In Clinic operates one weekend every month, and is open to children between the ages of one and five. The goal of this clinic is to provide early interventions for families who suspect developmental issues with their child, and are not already on the path to a diagnosis.
The clinic employs a comprehensive three-step triage process:
(i) initial intake
(ii) evaluation by a clinical team comprised of an ABA therapist, Speech-Language Pathologist and a Family Physician
(iii) and for those with positive screens, further assessment by a Developmental Pediatrician
Dr. Mohammad Zubairi, the Developmental Pediatrician volunteering at the clinic, states that the power of the clinic is in its ability to bring together different professionals to effectively screen a child and present a diagnosis in a timely-manner.
One of the main factors that limit immigrant families’ access to resources is the stigma surrounding the disorder. Families fearing stigmatization from their extended family or community might not seek out support immediately, choosing to deny developmental issues. Language is also a significant barrier for immigrant families. This can cause a disconnect in communications between healthcare providers and families in need. Using ethnic media and simple language visuals, the clinic aims to educate families about ASD, while working to eliminate the stigma around this disorder.
(click images to enlarge)
ASD cannot be diagnosed with a broad brush; a culturally responsive approach must be used to assess children from different ethnic backgrounds. Every child is unique, and what may seem to be a developmental deficit in a child may simply be the behavioural norm in the child’s culture. Thus, by adopting a culturally sensitive approach to diagnosing the child and educating the family about ASD, the clinic is an invaluable resource for immigrant families.
Dr. Zubairi emphasizes the importance of the cultural awareness exhibited at the clinic. Much like SAAAC, the clinic will focus on child development with a cultural lens. Muraly Srinarayanathas, who is the owner and Chief Strategy Officer at Computek College, SAAAC’s community partner, observes that the clinic’s location provides a safe and private environment, easing its ability to address the needs of its families.
However, the clinic is still in its early stages of implementation. To continue providing the community with its services, it needs more resources. Dr. Zubairi states that additional resources through external funding and sponsorships are needed to make improvements to the clinic. In its current stage, the clinic is open only a few times a month. With support from the community, the clinic aims to become more available and accessible to families. In addition to sponsorships, Mr. Srinarayanathas urges the community to get involved. He says that an important way to support SAAAC and the clinic is by dedicating one’s time to raise awareness about ASD and what it means to be diagnosed with it. This is the only way to fight ignorance.
If you have any concerns about your child’s development, do not hesitate to call 416-289-0100 to book an appointment and get access to our free services.