April is Autism awareness month and it is important to make sure we have the right information about Autism. Nuwa Omo is a Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO)Educator and our Guest Blogger for the week. Apart from consulting on Special educational needs issues she is the founder of Homebay Education and blogs as #nuwaknows. She writes from the United Kingdom where she resides with her husband and two children. Read and learn!
Autism is one part of the wider diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) which also includes Asperger Syndrome, High Functioning Autism (HFA), Pervasive developmental Disorder (PDD) and Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA). It can also co-occur alongside other conditions like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Hearing Impairment, Visual Impairment, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, Developmental delay, Fragile X Syndrome, etc. Autism is characterised by challenges in the following areas:
- Social communication
- Social interaction
- Repetitive behaviours and routines
- Highly-focused interests
- Sensory sensitivity (hypo or hyper sensitivity)
The term ‘Autism’ was first used by a Swiss psychiatrist called Paul Eugen Bleuler in 1911. However, Autism as we know it today was identified in the 1940s by 2 psychiatrists working separately called Leo Kanner (Austrian-American) and Hans Asperger, an Austrian paediatrician.
A few facts and myths.
- Autism is not caused by a person’s upbringing, their social circumstances and is not the fault of the individual with the condition, their parents, family members, friends or acquaintances.
- Autism can affect anyone irrespective of race, or gender although males are more affected/diagnosed than females. Ratio from several studies vary widely but is usually reported at about 4(m):1(f). There are several reasons for this. However, in recent years, reports show that there has been an increase in the number of females being diagnosed.
- Symptoms of Autism usually presents from about the ages of 1.5 years – 3 years. Assessment and diagnosis may depend on the severity of symptom, persistence and awareness of parents/carers and availability of assessment and diagnostic opportunities.
- Autism is not a spiritual affliction and is not caused by witchcraft or sins of the parents or a family member.
- Autism is not a disease and it is not contagious. You cannot ‘catch’ Autism by interacting with someone who has Autism.
- Autism is often defined by its difficulties, but many report it can also bring benefits, talents and gifts (savants, inventors, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, scientists, etc.).
Every country would have their own ratio of people with Autism to the general population. Countries that are more advanced in research in this area and have better assessment, diagnostic and reporting procedures are likely to report a more accurate ratio figure than countries that do not. The NAS reports the number as 1 in 100 people in the UK while America reports figures of about 1 in 68 people. It would be impossible to report a near accurate result in Africa, and in particular Nigeria, due to various factors including those mentioned above plus lack of reporting, assessment or disclosure brought about by ignorance, denial, discrimination, cultural and religious taboos, barriers and attitudes.
There are ongoing debates and ‘testimonies’ relating to a ‘cure’ for Autism. Whatever argument one is inclined to believe, there are things that could help with management of the challenges or symptoms of Autism (this list is by no means exhaustive):
- Therapies and interventions (Speech and Language, Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Social and Emotional, etc.)
- Professional support (School teachers and SENCOs, Paediatric doctors and nurses, Educational Psychologists, Psychiatrists, Speech and Language therapists, Occupational Therapists, Physio Therapists, Special Needs organisations and charities etc.)
- Health Checks (Developmental checks and *vaccinations, Hearing, Eyesight, Allergies and Weight monitoring, etc.)
- Diet (Gluten Free/Casein Free, Free from, texture discrimination, etc.)
- Exercise programmes (Gross, Fine Motor, Proprioceptive and Vestibular)
- Sensory programmes (use of thera putty and other sensory items and spaces)
- Use of tactile, kinaesthetic and visual aids (timetables, schedules, colour coding, sensory toys, etc.)
- Maintaining routines where possible/minimising unnecessary changes
- Tapping into their interests, talents and gifts
- ‘Listening’ to your child. Even those that are nonverbal have other ways to communicate
- LOVE and SUPPORT – this is the most important therapy in my opinion as it is free and every other is dependent on this
Remember no two children with Autism, even twins, have the same symptoms so what works for one may not necessarily work for another. This is where a parent/carer being the expert on their child rings true. Know your child and EDUCATE yourself, as you would have to support the work of any professional or expert working with your child.
According to the United Nations’ Secretary General, in his recent Autism Awareness Day message, the purpose of raising awareness is to encourage changing attitudes towards persons with Autism, to support them and to recognise their rights as citizens so that they can become as independent as they possibly can growing up, achieve their personal best and contribute to the society. Shout out to all those raising awareness of Autism and Special Educational Needs and Disability(SEND)in Nigeria. To all the families (dads, mums, siblings etc.) out there supporting and advocating for their child/ren and fighting against discrimination, prejudice and isolation. Special shout out to Daisy Esohe Jonathan of Pleasant Places Therapy Centre in Port Harcourt, Nneka Enejere Obiagwu of Child Restoration Initiative Lagos, Lola Aneke of CADET Academy in Abuja, Okey Nwokolo, Isaac Osae-Brown and other individuals raising awareness in Nigeria. If you are reading this article, you can support the cause by: donating to an Autism/SEND related organisation; standing up for children and people with Autism in your community; being a friend or source of support to a parent/carer of a child with Autism; educating yourself and your wards about Autism so that they do not get involved in bullying or discriminatory acts but instead, possibly challenge such wicked acts. Religious leaders have a strategic role to play in educating themselves and their congregation as well as influencing attitudes towards children and people with Autism together with other forms of SEND. Families (husband and wife) that have child(ren) with Autism need to stick together for the sake of their child, his/her progress and future.
Every cloud has a silver lining. Every child, no matter how mild or severe their challenges with Autism, has a right to be here and has a purpose for being. It is our duty as parents, members of the community as well as the larger society, to help them achieve this purpose or at the least not stand in their way.
*MMR Vaccination (with compounds like lead) and possible links to some incidents of Autism in children is a controversial subject that made the news in the past. This claim has been widely and rigorously challenged by international pharmaceutical companies. The National Autistic Society’s current and recent stand is that there is no link between autism and the MMR vaccine.