Irina Kobakhidze, 40, a mother of two sons, first learned about autism when her younger child, Luka, was diagnosed with it. Having noticed some unusual characteristics in the boy’s behavior at the age of 3, she decided to take him to the doctor.
Now Luka is 9 years old and attends special school N 192 for disabled children.
“The doctor explained to me that Luka has the same disease as the main character of the movie ‘Rain Man.’ At that time I really had no idea about autism, thus I began to read a lot of literature on this topic to educate myself and to know more about it,” she says.
Kobakhidze is not the only one in Georgia who first heard about autism only after being confronted with the problem in her own child. Autism has only become a subject of conversation in Georgia within the last two years. Many still do not have any notion of what autism is.
A person with autism, a mental condition, experiences the world differently from the way other people do. It is typical for autistic people to have, in varying degrees, difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and to adopt repetitive behaviors.
Autism appears to have its roots in very early development. However, parents usually do not recognize the most obvious signs and symptoms of autism until the child is already 2 or 3 years old.
“Autistic children need a doctor's help at any age,” Medea Zirakashvili, a pediatric neurologist at Iashvili Children's Central Hospital in Tbilisi, says. “But of course, it is better if they approach a doctor before the age of 3.”
Among the syndromes most commonly recognized by parents, neurologists say, are speech problems, restricted interests and lack of instrumental gestures. Kobakhidze, for instance, recalls some nervousness and hyperactivity in Luka’s behavior that was unfamiliar to her.
According to the results of monitoring carried out by Tbilisi Pediatric Neurology and Neuro-rehabilitation Center during the last two years, 16 of 2,000 Georgian children tested were identified with autism. Nana Tatishvili, the head of this center says that the number of autistic children in Georgia is increasing, approximating that of the international indicator - 1 autistic child among 100 children.
In Tatishvili’s opinion, the stereotypical thinking of society harms children and their families.
“I know many parents who face difficulties because of existing stigma,” she says. “When meeting an autistic child, people stop, stare at him and ask many stupid questions. This kind of reaction from the society makes parents avoid taking their child to public places.”
Tatishvili says that many parents prefer to communicate only with those families who have similar problems.
Kobakhidze learned that Luka was autistic in 2006. From that moment, she decided to help him as much as she could. Now that he is in school, she helps him with the homework.
During the past six years, Kobakhidze has come to the conclusion that the exchange of experiences can be very useful for parents. For two months, she has been attending a center for parents of autistic children. Every Tuesday she meets with about 25 other parents with whom she discusses a number of problems that she faces. There are some specialists in autism in the center who also help parents cope with difficulties.
Before attending this center, Kobakhidze did not know that her child should have a special diet, avoiding sugar.
“I have learned a lot of things in this center, particularly, how to treat my son on this or that situation. For instance, if he cries and demands something, I have to wait till he gets calmer and then give him the thing he wants. And when he does something good, I must praise him, giving some reward,” Kobakhidze says.
For her, the communication with other parents and the specialists provides support and help in coping with her son’s situation.