A few years back, autism was a rarity.
Not because there were no people with it but the ability to make the diagnosis was limited.
In Nigeria, the autistic child would commonly end up in a traditional healing centre for the mentally challenged or in a prayer house for casting out of myriads of demons. The case of an autistic child thoroughly battered in the course of deliverance trended on the social media some years back.
According to the World Health Organisation, Autism spectrum disorders(ASD) is a group of complex “developmental disorders and conditions that emerge in early childhood and, in most cases, persist throughout the lifespan and are marked by the presence of impaired development in social interaction and communication and a restricted repertoire of activity and interest, with or without accompanying intellectual and language disabilities; and that manifestations of the disorder vary greatly in terms of combinations and levels of severity of symptoms.”
In simple terms, the child with autism has difficulty communicating and interacting with people.
Some of the behaviours associated with autism include delayed learning of language; difficulty in making eye contact or holding a conversation. April 2nd every year is internationally recognised as World Autism Awareness Day. Countries are required, on this day, to take measures to raise awareness about people with autism throughout the world.
While no known single cause of autism has been identified, increased awareness and early diagnosis/intervention and access to appropriate services/supports often lead to significantly improved outcomes.
Suggestive features of autism in a child include
• Lack of or delay in spoken language
• Repetitive use of language and peculiar mannerisms like hand-flapping.
• Little or no eye contact
• Lack of interest in peer relationships
• Lack of spontaneous or make-believe play
• Persistent fixation on parts of objects
It is currently estimated that about 1 million Nigerians are living with autism. Many autistic children are erroneously believed to be witches or possessed . They are locked up and left to die. Most of them are often denied basic human rights, resulting in poor quality of life and trauma for their parents, relations and care givers.
Guaranty Trust Bank, GTB, under its Orange Ribbon Initiative has continually sought to raise awareness on ASD. They provide medical training opportunities and support for families and children with autism. Through their yearly symposium on ASD which is usually open to medical practitioners and the general public they seek to create adequate awareness with a view to demystifying cultural and spiritual beliefs associated with the disorder.
The current UNESCO concept is for inclusive education which , “involves the transformation of schools and other centres of learning to cater for all children – including boys and girls, students from ethnic and linguistic minorities, rural populations, those affected by HIV and AIDS, and those with disabilities and difficulties in learning.”
In inclusive schools, children with no known disability are put together with children with special needs who may have a personal aide at certain or all times to help with learning. These schools plan and adapt lessons in a way to enable each child reach his or her maximum potential.
With autism, all hope is not lost, there is light at the end of the tunnel.