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Alumni changing lives through autism awareness and care

Posted: 31 March 2023

Nepal, Alumni, Impact,

To mark World Autism Awareness Day 2023, we spoke to three Australia Awards alumni who are making a difference in the lives of people with autism and their families. All three alumni play a crucial role in AutismCare Nepal Society (ACNS), an organisation founded by alum Dr Sunita Maleku Amatya based in Lalitpur, Nepal, that provides support for people with autism, while also raising autism awareness in the country.

Dr Rena Shrestha is a Consultant Psychologist at ACNS, as well as a lecturer in Tribhuvan University’s Department of Psychology. She completed a PhD at La Trobe University in 2019 with the support of an Australia Awards Scholarship. We asked Dr Shrestha to describe the context of autism in Nepal, and how she got involved.

Alum Dr Rena Shrestha

Dr Shrestha: “In recent years, increased autism awareness among health professionals and access to information has led to earlier and more frequent diagnosis of autism and an increase in the provision of intervention services in Nepal.

“Additionally, significant geographical disparities and ethnic inequalities hamper access to identification and diagnostic services in Nepal. Other significant barriers to timely autism diagnosis and intervention include limited knowledge of the early signs of autism, a shortage of trained professionals and a lack of provision of services. This highlights the need to develop cost-effective and easily accessible autism services in local communities in Nepal.

“My passion to work with children and adolescents inspired me to pursue my current clinical, research and teaching career. After completing my postgraduate study in psychology, I worked at the developmental clinic of Self- help Group for Cerebral Palsy, Nepal, where I learnt more about developmental disabilities, including autism. That is when I became aware of the lack of trained professionals in this field, which prompted me to additional training in autism, the diagnostic process and intervention strategies. Being in academia, I greatly value evidence-based practices. This motivated me during my Doctoral study supported by Australia Awards to lead one of the pioneering research projects on early identification of autism in Nepal’s context.”

Sijan Shakya is a Special Educator at ACNS. She completed an Australia Awards Short Course on Inclusive Education delivered by Queensland University of Technology in 2016. We asked Sijan to tell us more about ACNS, what it does to raise awareness of autism and what services it provides, as well as what her specific role is.

Alum Sijan Shakya

Sijan: ACNS is a non-government organisation run by passionate parents. Working closely with the government, ACNS raises awareness and advocates for the rights of people with autism. It provides various training programs to parents, teachers and people working with autism to secure the future wellbeing of people with autism. ACNS engages in diagnostic assessment, counselling, therapeutic intervention and developing mobile apps for people with autism. We run Aarambha Pre-Primary School for students with autism, and the Aakaar Vocational Unit, which supports adults with autism to develop their vocational interests. We also offer a Diploma in Special Education in Autism.

“My Australia Awards Short Course on Inclusive Education boosted my confidence to understand more about inclusion not just in my workplace but also in every aspect of life. It has made me more specific and precise. I have learnt about different perspectives (of parents and colleagues) and now better appreciate working together to achieve a goal. I also recognise the value of documentation.

“Currently, I am studying a Master of Psychology, which allows me to provide counselling to the parents of children with autism. I am one of the few people currently working with people with autism in Nepal. I was involved in developing the curriculum for the Diploma in Special Education in Autism and currently supervise the students. I am also supervising the teachers in Aakaar Vocational Unit. Doing all this, I try to increase the human resources supporting people with autism and give my best in the field.”

Finally, Dr Sunita Maleku Amatya is the founder and chairperson of ACNS. She also completed an Australia Awards Short Course on Inclusive Education delivered by Queensland University of Technology, participating in 2015, the year before the iteration Sijan undertook. We asked Dr Amatya what progress Nepal has seen in the field of autism awareness and care, and what are the major achievements that she and her organisation have made.

Alum Dr Sunita Maleku Amatya

Dr Amatya: “I have been leading ACNS as Chair since 2011. Since then, ACNS has been engaged in raising awareness, carrying out advocacy, and conducting education and training activities at different levels. Participating in the Australia Awards Short Course on Inclusive Education was a transformative experience for me. I gained confidence, knowledge and skills to widen ACNS’s work in the sector of inclusive education.

“Our ongoing efforts have raised awareness about autism among people living in urban areas, but an overall lack of understanding about autism still persists. This year, we had a great opportunity to increase awareness about autism at the national level by organising a concert by the popular Nepali musicians 1974 A.D. The concert was supported by the Australian Embassy in Nepal in collaboration with Kathmandu Metropolitan City. Initiatives such as these have been unique and historic ways of raising awareness about autism among a wider audience and at the national level. This event is a key example of how collaborative initiatives can make a robust contribution to the cause. We are hopeful that autism will be fully embraced in the near future.”