Dealing with autism

Dealing with autism

LAST week, members of Intellectual Disability of Lesotho (IDAL), who are also parents of children with autism, marched in Maseru to raise awareness on autism.
Coinciding with the World Autism Day on April 2, their march was part of the World Autism Disorder Awareness Month. The motive the commemoration and the awareness campaigns like the march is to improve understanding and acceptance of people living with autism.

During the march parents collectively stated challenges they face on raising children living with autism. They lamented how tough it is to get their children accommodated in public schools. They talked about the stigmatization their children suffer because society doesn’t understand their condition.

Like most mental disorder conditions, autism is a bewildering and complex condition. There is a general ignorance about it in Lesotho. Parents with autistic children don’t have enough knowledge about the conditions.
Those who understand it have to quickly learn how to raise their children in a society that is largely ignorant about the condition, a daunting task in a society that has little understanding about mental health.

They have to do this in a country where there are not enough social programmes to support autistic children, their parents and families.
What makes it worse is that mental disability is generally associated with negative beliefs and stigma.

In the past, people with mental disabilities were put in asylums that became the disreputable houses for keeping the mentally ill to segregate them from general society. This led to some parents hiding children with disability by restraining them in the home.
However, it is only later in school that I began to develop a thorough understanding that mental disability is not demon possession or insanity.
According to the American Psychiatry Organisation, autism is a neurodevelopmental syndrome that is defined by deficits in social reciprocity and communication and by an unusual repetitive behaviour.

Autism normally begins in childhood and persists into adolescence and adulthood. Although no real evidence is established on the causes of the disorder, scientific research postulates that it is a disorder that stems from environmental and genetic factors.
This means that it is a neurological condition that has to do more with biology than psychology. Furthermore, there are many factors that should not be accounted to autism.
This means that autism is not a psychological or emotional disorder and it is certainly not a result of bad parenting. Parents and guardians of autistic children should be aware of the following signs:

Difficulty in social interaction and communication
Children with Autism Spectrum disorder may show signs like no babbling by 11 to 12 months like normal children, which may later on lead to delayed, absent or poor speech, struggling to smile or make eye contact when interacting with people. Additionally, a child struggles to play with other children or to follow instructions from teachers.

Repetitive behaviours, interests or activities
Children diagnosed with autism exhibit signs of repetitive ways of moving their fingers or hands.

Aggressive Behaviour
This includes biting, scratching, banging of the head.
It should however be noted that no two children with autism disorder are alike. This means that symptoms are different for each child. In addition, symptoms range from mild to severe and can change as the child grows up.
Autism cannot be cured, but in other cases some children outgrow it. It can however be treated and managed through behaviour programmes, education and learning programmes, medications and therapy.

This year the United Nations emphasises “the importance of affordable assistive technologies to help people with autism live independently and exercise basic human rights”.
This brings out the point that children living with autism normally meet challenges such as lack of access to technologies.

However, the good news is that the Ministry of Education seems alive to the challenge. It is having training workshops about autism in an effort to help teachers assist and accommodate autistic children in schools.
Furthermore, special schools like Phelisanong Children’s Centre in Leribe accommodate children with autism. Shifting of attitudes and perceptions in the society has never been any an easy process.

It is however clear that there is a noticeable progress through the combined efforts of the Ministry of Education under the Special Education Unit and IDAL.
The programme which aims to create awareness against autism in schools is a sure sign that we are marching in the right direction where the society will eventually comprehensively understand, support and accept people with mental disabilities.
Children with cognitive or learning disabilities have a right to quality and effective education and training.

This means teachers as instructors and facilitators in classrooms should learn to accommodate children with autism.
Parents too should be trained on how to care for such children.
Above all, they should never give up on a child with autism disorder.
Autistic friendly and inclusive environments should be created to intergrate people with autism in order to improve their learning potential.

Matšilo Nkabane

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