Wendy Bowley’s lifelong struggle with an undiagnosed condition led her to start community organisation, Knowing Autism. Picture: Supplied
Wendy Bowley’s lifelong struggle with an undiagnosed condition led her to start community organisation, Knowing Autism. Picture: Supplied

Navigating autism in South Africa

By Keshia Africa Time of article published Aug 12, 2021

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Franschhoek resident Wendy Bowley received a late-onset diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) two years ago at the age of 44.

Before then, lived with an undiagnosed condition her whole life, that left her feeling despondent and like no one understood her.

Bowley said her experience as an autistic person left her feeling invisible because there was always a lack of understanding in recognising her autism.

“I masked my emotional storm inside and believed self-deprecating thoughts that I was somehow defective. My behaviour was labelled as defiant and problematic,” she said.

A 2020 study conducted by Sage Journals, which focused on autism in the Western Cape, showed a 76.03% increase in ASD in schools between 2012 and 2016. Despite this prevalence, many autistic children and their families still face challenges with diagnosis and management in schools.

Autism advocacy organisation, Autism South Africa only listed five autism-specific schools in the country. This means that there are many children on the autism spectrum, that are not receiving specialised education.

The Franschhoek resident whose 11-year-old son is autistic said it was important for teachers to be educated about autism.

“The sad reality is that these children that are unable to get an intervention, often do not reach their full potential.”

Bowley said autism needed to become more mainstream in South Africa.

“There are many misconceptions around autism that need to be rectified.”

She added: “A lot of the decision making is navigated by professionals and clinicians who are educated on the topic but do not live the reality of it.”

Bowley believed knowledge and education could foster an inclusive society.

“If we can shed light on this unnecessarily controversial topic and open the dialogue, we can have an inclusive system that starts to appreciate our differences instead of dividing us due to different thinking.”

In April, Bowley founded the organisation, Knowing Autism, to help raise awareness about the ASD crisis in South Africa. The organisation facilitates candid and supportive dialogue around the condition.

As part of Knowing Autism, Bowley offers one-on-one mentorship to people on the autism spectrum and has created a series of informative webinars for those navigating ASD.

“We are a community of people suffering from high anxiety that makes us feel incredibly anxious and shy around people,” she said.

She added: “I want to be a face and a story that is relatable, a story that opens your eyes and creates more compassion. So the next time you come across autism in your life, you will withhold your judgement that is only based on a lack of understanding and for the most part is inaccurate.“

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