Autism is a neurological disorder that affects the development and functioning of the brain. It is characterised by challenges in communication, social interaction, and repetitive behaviours. Autism affects individuals differently, with some being non-verbal and others having advanced language abilities.
World Autism Day is observed on April 2, and the South African Society of Psychiatrists (SASOP) asks for greater knowledge of autism as well as more resources in the health and education sectors. These efforts will benefit people with autism in general, not just those who can afford to pay for services.
Bringing awareness to autism is important because it helps to promote understanding and acceptance of individuals on the autism spectrum. It also helps to break down stigmatisation and misconceptions about the disorder, which can ultimately enhance the quality of life for those affected by it.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can be improved with early diagnosis, treatment, and education, but awareness of the disorder is limited, especially in lower-income communities of South Africa and around the world.
Despite the lack of statistics in South Africa, a study in the Western Cape found that children with autism are on the rise by 76%. According to their findings, approximately one in 36 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), up from the previous estimate of 1 in 44 (2.3%).
Dr Kedi Motingoe, a child psychiatrist and member of The South African Society of Psychiatry (SASOP), believes that when children with autism present, their parents, teachers, and peers unnecessarily stigmatise and exclude them.
According to her, a child with autism is typically diagnosed between the ages of 3 and 4 in developed economies. Early signs include behaviours like the way the child learns, speaks, plays, and behaves in social situations.
Contrary to popular belief, these kids are more frequently misdiagnosed and labelled as ‘’difficult, dangerous, bad-mannered, impulsive, a prodigy, introverted, and is the result of poor parenting.’’
Autism is a developmental disorder that is diagnosed three to four times more often in boys than in girls. It is associated with children's early brain development. Although the causes are not clear, genetics, environmental factors, and complications during birth do play a role.
Dr Motingoe clarifies that autism is a brain-based, neuro-psychiatric condition that needs support and therapy rather than being a psychological, emotional, or behavioural disorder.
By discussing autism and bringing awareness to autism, we can help to promote understanding and acceptance of individuals on the autism spectrum. People can learn about the strengths and weaknesses of individuals with autism, which can help provide them and their families with the proper support they need. Further, we can help to break down stigmatisation and misconceptions about the disorder, which can ultimately enhance the quality of life for those affected by autism.
Generally, parents become concerned due to behaviour problems at nursery school and difficulty fitting in. It has been found that children with autism commonly experience over-stimulation, which can lead to aggressive behaviour such as biting when they are unable to communicate how they are feeling, said Dr Motingoe.
According to her, high-functioning autism is often diagnosed later in life due to difficulties in learning or relationships with peers and teachers, which leads to poor academic performance compared with their true abilities.
The signs of autism that parents and educators can look out for:
Little awareness of or disinterest in others.
Difficulty in interacting socially, lack of eye contact.
The distress caused by changes in routine or environment, especially extreme distress for no apparent reason.
Non-typical patterns of play, preferring to play alone, lack of imaginative play, repetitive behaviours, or unusual habits such as rocking, flapping hands, or constantly spinning objects. Gross or fine motor skill development that doesn’t match the usual developmental milestones
Rigid thinking style that may be without humour.
Hypo or hypersensitivities in sensory modalities such as visual stimuli and pain, a dislike of being touched or held, or a sense of touch, taste, smell, sight, or hearing that seems extra-sensitive or less sensitive than usual; may result in very rigid food preferences.
Delayed or non-typical development of speech and language, or the child appears not to hear.
Difficulties holding the perspective of another.
Treatment for autism
To maximise a child's development and lessen negative impacts like depression, low self-esteem, family fragmentation, or greater stress for the parents, early intervention is crucial.
Support from parents and siblings is essential, and treatment typically begins with interventions that educate parents and carers on dispelling myths about having an unruly child to place more emphasis on how to interact with the child, understand what to anticipate, and provide support.
In addition to improving communication, cognitive and social skills, occupational therapy also reduces distress for the child and supports positive behaviour changes. Moreover, specialised education, depending on the severity and presence of intellectual impairment, should be considered.
Although there is no specific treatment for autism, other illnesses that coexist with it, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), epilepsy, anxiety, or other neurological conditions, may be managed by medication.
For more information and supporting tools, you can go to www.aut2know.co.za.