Autism Month

SimangazoBy Simangazo Mokale 

When a baby is born parents anticipate that their child will live a long happy life, but this is not always the case. Sometimes there are conditions that are not evident at birth but are discovered as the child grows up. Autism is one such condition and it is described as a lifelong developmental disability which first displays itself in infancy and early childhood, causing delays in many basic areas of development, such as learning to talk, play, and interact with others.  

April is Autism Awareness Month, a time dedicated by activists and communities to advocate for and raise awareness about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). During this month we empower the public, and health and welfare service providers with information, dispel misconceptions, and promote a deeper understanding of Autism to help reduce stigma and discrimination.  

This year’s theme has been “Empowering Autistic Voices” which aims to provide more support and power to the individuals with this condition, along with educating the public so that people with Autism are able to lead meaningful and productive lives.   

Autism is a fairly common condition that is more prevalent than childhood cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined. According to the South African Society of Psychiatrists, ASD is usually diagnosed by the time a child is three years old, as the symptoms are seen early on in a child’s development and behaviour, the ways that they play, learn, speak or behave, particularly in a social context.  

An important thing to note for parents is that ASD occurs more often in boys and they are nearly three to four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ASD. However, females with Autism are often under-diagnosed.   
According to Psychology Today, this is because the criteria for diagnosing Autism evolved primarily on the presentation of boys, leading to a gendered perspective of Autism. This gender bias in turn leads to fewer referrals for females, later diagnoses, missed diagnoses, and misdiagnoses, as noted by Psychology Today.  

For parents or caregivers there is no one size fits all approach to ASD. The World Health Organisation has stated that some people with Autism can live independently, while others may have severe disabilities and require life-long care and support. It is also true that the abilities and needs of autistic people vary and can evolve over time.  

Assisting people with ASD to live full lives is challenging, and one of the aims of Autism Month is to challenge citizens to understand the daily lives of people living with Autism, and to assist where possible. Our country has schools that assist those living with ASD but they are relatively expensive and are often inaccessible to those who are disadvantaged socio-economically.  

The Department of Health is therefore working with other government departments such as Basic Education and Social Development for the provision of an all-inclusive basket of services for the early detection and intervention of ASD to improve overall health outcomes and lessen long-term suffering and costs of care. 

While every case of ASD is unique, it has been found that having a dog can be very beneficial. Research has shown that dogs are linked to an improvement in the quality of life in autistic children by helping with their aggressive behaviour, while also prompting independence and safety.  

As a society we should never forget that children living with ASD can lead meaningful lives given the right support. All of us have a role to play in dispelling misconceptions and in reducing stigma, which will go a long way in ensuring that autistic people are free to pursue their dreams.

Simangazo Mokale Assistant Director: Communication Resource Centre at Government Communication and Information System