Parents of autistic child Dr Basil Dhaniram and Nirasha Dhaniram
Parents of autistic child Dr Basil Dhaniram and Nirasha Dhaniram

Neuroplasticity is at the heart of one couple’s personal, professional and spiritual journey with autism and it has led to a groundbreaking school and community forum, writes Omeshnie Naidoo

Medical practitioner, Dr Basil Dhaniram, and his psychologist wife, Nirasha Dhaniram, founded Imbalito Hope College Assessment and Therapy Centre on the KwaZulu-Natal north coast after their son was diagnosed with autism.

The star academy offers national, standard and adapted curriculum, as well as a multi-disciplinary approach to learning and has an in-house team of therapists and educators.

In 2008, the couple also set up a community support group called Ballito Autism Centre of Excellence which has since become a national forum, known as Connect Special Needs and Autism Joint Forum for Professionals, Parents and People. A forum for all stakeholders in autism to learn and work together.

Their son, Mikhail, now 14 years old, has clearly prompted his professional parents into the ‘’cause’’ and his “regular teen” status is testament to the progress that can be made for children on the spectrum.

His mother, Nirasha, left a lucrative corporate career to research her son’s condition and dedicate her time to his education. She learnt so much and became so passionate that she knew she had to help other parents in a similar situation.

“I felt for parents who simply did not understand autism and felt hopeless,” she said.

“The prevailing message around the spectrum of disorders is that early intervention is crucial.

“That is correct as it drives parents into action and we see children in their prime development period accelerate in their milestone gap areas when in the early intervention programme.

“However, the message leaves some families, those who have not sought early intervention, feeling a sense of despair.

“As health professionals, my husband and I were able to detect my son’s condition fairly early on, but there are many parents who miss the signals and start to believe that their child, who is behind – perhaps not even talking by age 7 or 8 – will always be behind.

“This just isn’t true. There is always hope.”

Nirasha, who is busy with her PhD on the subject, said she’d learnt from experience that although there is no cure, with the correct intervention and support, children will always flourish.

“What is also critical is that we see the quality of family life improve once the child makes progress.

“Parents must upskill themselves and stay knowledgeable. This is the reason we started the Connect Forum to ensure that parents too are empowered to be the key drivers and participants in their child’s developmental plan.”

She said her work, school and hopeful perspective is inspired by the principles of neuroplasticity.

“It is best explained by one of my favourite books The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge.

“The book includes astonishing examples of progress made by people whose conditions have long been dismissed as hopeless.

“It talks about the neuroplasticity of the brain, which basically means that the brain is not as hardwired or unchanging as we may have thought.

It gives hope to those with mental limitations and more.

“Case studies include a woman born with half a brain that rewired itself to work as a whole, a woman labelled retarded who cured her deficits with brain exercises and now cures those of others, blind people learning to see, learning disorders cured, IQs raised, ageing brains rejuvenated, painful phantom limbs erased, stroke patients recovering their faculties, children with cerebral palsy learning to move more gracefully, entrenched depression and anxiety disappearing, and lifelong character traits altered.”

Nirasha said she had seen this for herself.

“Every child no matter their age will change for the better once on a focused, individualised and intensive intervention programme.

“Mikhail has made relative leaps of progress thanks to excellent interventions and the grace of God. He leads a full and productive life in academics, sports, swimming and horse riding. All of which we’ve made available at the school, to ensure a multi-disclipinary approach.

“Raising awareness is a challenge. We support the global, annual Light it Up Blue autism awareness campaign, which sees more than 3 000 iconic buildings and landmarks in 50 countries on six continents, turn their lights blue for world autism awareness. We’ve had incredible support from King Shaka International Airport, Moses Mabhida Stadium and Netcare Alberlito Hospital.

“We were thrilled when Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, attended our forum function as guest of honour this year. Her presence brought us hope, especially as parents, that the government does care and is committed to improving the quality and extent of services for children and persons with special needs and autism.

“The prevalence of autism in South Africa is said to be 1 in 88, and at least 300 000 people in SA have autism. Autism is prevalent four to five times more in boys than in girls.”

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Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological disorder which manifests in a range of developmental delay symptoms in areas of language, communication, social skills, repetitive behaviours and sensory challenges. The cause is unclear. ASD presents itself before the age of 3 and lasts throughout a person’s life. It is a spectrum disorder and includes autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder and Asperger syndrome. While many are challenged, some children with ASD are gifted and have unique talents.

Parents should consult a paediatrician or their doctor if their children show signs of restricted repetitive behaviours, limited social interaction, and delays in language and communication development.

Here are some of the signs and symptoms listed by psychologist Nirasha Dhaniram of Imbalito Hope College which are in line with those of the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

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A child with ASD might:

* Not respond to their name by 12 months of age.

* Not point at objects to show interest (point at an airplane flying over) by 14 months.

* Not play “pretend” games (pretend to “feed” a doll) by 18 months.

* Avoid eye contact and want to be alone.

* Have trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings.

* Have delayed speech and language skills.

* Repeat words or phrases over and over (echolalia).

* Give unrelated answers to questions.

* Get upset by minor changes.

* Have obsessive interests.

* Flap their hands, rock their body, or spin in circles.

* Have unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel.

* Might not understand personal space boundaries.

* Avoids or resists physical contact.

* Reverses pronouns (eg, says “you” instead of “I”)

* Uses few or no gestures (eg, does not wave goodbye).

* Talks in a flat, robot-like, or sing-song voice.

* May not understand jokes, sarcasm or teasing.

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Many children with ASD have unusual interest or behaviours or talents. He or she may:

* Line up toys or other objects.

* Play with toys the same way every time.

* Be very organised.

* Have obsessive interests.

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Often, misunderstood children may be perceived to be:

* hyperactive

* impulsive

* aggressive

* the child may seem to have unusual eating and sleeping habits or fears

For more information on special needs and autism treatments and education contact 032 586 0200 or visit www.connectspecialneeds.co.za or Facebook Imbalito Hope College.