According to the WHO, Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are a diverse group of conditions. It is a serious developmental disorder that impairs the ability to communicate and interact.Characteristics of autism may be detected in early childhood, but autism is often not diagnosed until much later.
People with autism often have co-occurring conditions, including epilepsy, depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as well as challenging behaviours such as difficulty sleeping and self-injury. The level of intellectual functioning among people with autism varies widely, extending from profound impairment to superior levels.
The abilities and needs of people with autism vary and can evolve over time. While some people with autism can live independently, others have severe disabilities and require life-long care and support.
According to the CDC, about one in 54 children has a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Social communication and social interaction characteristics related to ASD can include:
- Avoids or does not keep eye contact
- Does not respond to name by 9 months of age
- Does not show facial expressions like happy, sad, angry, and surprised by 9 months of age
- Does not play simple interactive games by 12 months of age
- Uses few or no gestures by 12 months of age (e.g., does not wave goodbye)
- Does not share interests with others (e.g., shows you an object that he or she likes by 15 months of age)
- Does not point or look at what you point to by 1 and a 1/2 of age
- Does not notice when others are hurt or sad by 2 years of age
- Does not pretend in play (by 2 1/2 years of age)
- Shows little interest in peers
- Has trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about own feelings at 3 years of age or older
- Does not play games with turn taking by 5 years of age
What can the government do?
Children with Autism are turned away from schools including Special Needs Schools across Africa. The needs of children with Autism are different and so the teachers have a difficult time if they are not trained and do not have resources to enable them to efficiently do their jobs. This is in line with SDG Goal 4: Education.
The government can help by empowering the educational personnel via trainings especially at an Early Childhood Development stage to assess for symptoms of Autism early and discuss it with the parents so the child can see their Primary Care Provider and referral can be done by a Neurodevelopmemtal Specialist who can perform the assessment for Autism. Schools should also have an Autism block and allow maximum interactions with neurotypical students. The schools should also run on Applied behavior analysis (ABA) which is often described as the “gold standard” and most effective for Autism management.
The African governments together with the medical boards across Africa, can insist on a standard protocol of assessing Autism. Trainings can be provided on these protocols and an audit can be done to ensure they are followed. This will prevent the multiple occurrences of misdiagnosis that occurs as different health providers are now assessing at their discretion.
What can Businesses do?
They can help by creating Autism awareness. April 2nd is World Autism Day and by displaying blue, which is the color of Autism Awareness in their establishments and also printing flyers and handing them out to costumers would desensitize the community around the business location. In many African cultures, Autism is viewed as witchcraft or a curse. Autism Awareness leads to acceptance and inclusion of children with Autism.
Businesses can also donate towards school programs that apply Applied Behavior Analysis which is a rather costly therapy. This would create opportunities for more children with Autism to access education.
What can religious institutions do?
They can help by creating rooms that are friendly so children with Autism can actually attend services. Majority of the families affected with Autism rarely attend religious services as the bright lights and loud music can be overwhelming to a child with Autism.
Religious institutions can insist on children being assessed early in addition to the spiritual intervention that they provide. Funds can also be raised through donations to support schools that run on ABA.
Autism Awareness should also be addressed in the institutions to reduce stigma in the communities. We can all play a part in making this world a much better place for children and families affected with Autism. Why don’t we begin today?