On the 2nd April, United Nations member states commemorated World Autism Awareness Day. On this day, people across the globe light blue in recognition of people living with autism as the world seeks to raise awareness about this condition. For this year, Active Participation was the theme.
Autism is encapsulated as a group of lifelong developmental brain disorders, collectively known as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). And it is estimated that an average of 52million people worldwide appear on the autism spectrum with countries such as Australia reporting estimates of 1 in 40 children as autistic.
It is diagnosed based on differences in behaviour, social interaction, communication, special interests and sensory processing and there is yet to be an established cause besides links to genetics and environment. Due to these differences varying from one person to the next, the term spectrum is applied.
People appearing on the autism spectrum exhibit symptoms which include excellent/problematic memory, repetitive body movements and questions, speech impairments, strict adhesion to routines and rules. They are often diagnosed between the ages of 0-7 when children are unable to meet their expected milestones within the expected time frame. However, adults can also be diagnosed in which case they are regarded to have high functioning autism.
Despite autism being a lifelong battle, an early diagnosis leads to early treatment. This ranges from prescribed medications such antidepressants, stimulants and antipsychotics and therapy e.g. occupational and physical therapy. With early diagnosis and treatment, autism patients can get to lead a normal life.
Unfortunately, in Africa there is still a stigma around autism which is perpetuated by the lack of knowledge and shortage of resources. The gut wrenching news are that in some communities’ children end up being locked or hidden away as their families are too scared to deal with societal pressure and ostracism.
It is however heart-warming that contrary to the challenges that Africa still faces towards autism, Lesotho has taken a stand hence the existence of organizations such as Maseru Special Edu-care and Autism Therapies Center and Autism Lesotho. The latter is a support group for parents with autistic children that came to be in 2011.
When engaging with people living with autism, a few things are often recommended so that they also feel as part and parcel of society with patience as the major one. It is advised to avoid touching them unexpectedly and not force them into eye contact. However, acceptance, understanding, support and asking them questions where necessary is always encouraged as these put them at ease.