Blow for Jamaica's autistic children

Maia Chung foundation to discontinue outreach activities; cites lack of gov’t support

BY NADINE WILSON Observer staff reporter

Monday, April 30, 2012

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EXACTLY four years after it was launched to help children diagnosed with autism, the Maia Chung Autism and Disabilities Foundation (MCADF) is set to discontinue all forms of outreach activities, effective today, citing Government's obvious disregard for those living with the mental disorder.

Motivated by the diagnosis of one of her three sons with autism, Chung established the foundation to lobby for children suffering from the developmental disorder, which impairs social interaction. The MCADF has organised various fundraising initiatives geared toward helping to subsidise care, medication, school fees, and even groceries for parents of autistic children.

But despite its success in creating awareness of autism and seeking interventions for those affected by it, Chung said the foundation is done with outreach.

"I am tired. I am done. I am very appreciative of everyone who helped, because I think the awareness will assist persons who have the resources, so that they can know," she told the Jamaica Observer Friday. "But I am disheartened and I don't see why I should continue."

She said the awareness of autism and its symptoms has led to several parents now taking their children in to be diagnosed. With this influx, special needs schools, she said, are being placed in a position where they have to stretch their meagre budget to accommodate parents who cannot afford the high school feels needed to educate children with autism.

"The awareness has definitely increased, the identification has definitely increased and I am pleased with that development. But we need much more Government intervention at this level, because identifying a whole bunch of people who are affected by a situation and not having anywhere for them to go is a waste of time," she said.

Chung is disappointed that despite the resources her group has pumped into keeping special needs schools functional over the years, two have been closed down while at least one more is on the brink of closure.

"When these close and there is a dearth already, what do we do then? she asked, while pointing to a lack of viable solutions and intervention from the Government.

"I am not pleased with the level of response I am getting in terms of the developmental movement forward for [facilities] to place these persons," she said.

"I can't see where there is a way forward being articulated just for persons with disabilities. With autism being what it is, it is increasing the number of persons who are now factored into the general disabilities population. What is the agenda?" she asked.

Chung said she and the foundation's eight-member board have given of their time and efforts over the years to carry out the work of the foundation without a salary. However, more and more they are finding themselves in a position where they have to dig into their personal resources to assist parents coming to them for help.

"We have our jobs and we take time off from the jobs and beg our bosses to help us out. I have taken food from my refrigerator and asked board members to drive to Portmore to give to people who are in their houses dying of hunger and are ashamed," she said.

Given the fact that autistic children demand specialised treatment, Chung said some families are in financial ruin as a result of caring for their special needs children. Most schools that cater to autistic children usually factor in the cost for speech and occupational therapy, which Chung said makes it impossible to charge less than $40,000 per term for school fees.

Chung said she has often lobbied on the behalf of these schools, given their need for Government intervention, but she said her cries for the most part seem to have fallen on deaf ears. The last Government subvention her group received was in 2009 -- $100,000 to assist some students.

"We [know] that money is not falling from trees, but the institutions that exist can be audited to see what is necessary to upgrade them," she noted.

Chung has received a number of awards over the years for her work with the autism community. In 2010, she was recognised as a pioneer in community service during Amazing Woman's Day in Los Angeles California, and in 2011 she was awarded by SEPROD/Lions Club of Mona for outstanding and dedicated attention to the cause of Autism in Jamaica.

The foundation, meanwhile, has raised over $10 million over the fours years it has operated to assist autistic children and create a nationally and regionally aired television and radio series on issues relating to autism and disabilities.

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