AUTISM AWARENESS 101
Every parent’s wish is that their child grows and develops with no hinderances and achieves their milestones in the set time. However, these hopes sometimes, do not come true and parents are often devastated when they learn that their child has autism. Some parents believe that there is a trigger. Something elusive that seems to switch off the light in their eyes. In Fact, some studies have shown that there is a genetic predisposition to autism.
It often begins with speech hinderances that manifest through slurred speech where most children express themselves in broken, fragmented sentences, sometimes referring to themselves in third person. Other symptoms such as flapping hands, inability to express their emotions/interpret people’s emotions, slow progress such as difficulty in potty training among others may also appear.
Autism is a neurological and developmental condition that emerges early in childhood and lasts a lifetime. While its causes remain unknown though studies indicate that it may be triggered by a mix of genetics and environmental factors.
It will affect an individual’s actions, social interactions, learning ability and communication.
People with the condition, referred to in full as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), will display myriad symptoms ranging from their inability to engage in eye contact with others when in conversation mode. They may also experience difficulty in talking to people while others may draw satisfaction in repetitive sentences, phrases or behavior such as arranging things. To the unschooled, they may be viewed as being in their own world and this may cause a lot of despair to caregivers and families of people suffering from ASD.
The demands associated with looking after persons with ASD cannot be ignored, neither can the stigma and isolation arising from being involved with this condition either as a sufferer or caregiver. It has long been a taboo subject in Tanzania where children were previously beaten, hidden away or condemned to death. It is only in recent years that awareness levels have risen in the country, probably signifying the beginning of a change in attitudes and approaches towards the condition.
How different is a person with Autism?
People with autism have a different experience with the world around them which often also affects how they communicate. Their differences are seen in 4 main areas:
Social Communication- They cannot communicate as they have little to no speech and slow language development.
Social Interaction- They interact differently, play differently and have a difficulty developing relationships.
iii. Sensory differences- They either over or under sensitive to one or most of the senses including sight, sound and balance.
Social imagination- They often stick to one routine and are not adaptive to change or have a specific interest they particularly like such as music which keeps them going.
Making a difference
While there is no standard treatment regime for Autism…there is totally no need to hide behind myths, stigma and isolation.
Indeed, global computer software giant Microsoft has gone beyond myths and stigma and piloted a program to hire autistic people in 2015, a feat that was recently described by their digital global lead, Michael Vermeersch, as having an 80% success rate. Many other global brands are daring to go in this direction but it doesn’t just start with hiring people with ASD.
There is a need to encourage the early exposure of children to medication activities that will increase their ability to learn and grow such as skills, behavior and communication therapy. Starting them early helps to not only fulfil their potential but is key in the transition into an independent, adult life.
This is admittedly not an easy task as it requires a massive investment in resources of the emotional and material type. We have the Autism Support Center which is playing a key role in providing access to education, therapy, job opportunities, and assessment and mentoring for families affected and impacted by autism. The Autism Society of Tanzania is also involved in creating awareness about the existence of ASD in Tanzania in addition to initiating Autism oriented units across the Tanzanian public schools system.
By creating awareness, we can collectively work to demystify Autism and ASD while nurturing a more enabling environment for management of the condition.