Let’s talk about autism

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Health Matters, Dr Sazini Nzula
Imagine being in a crowded place where people keep bumping into you, the noise pounding, blinding lights flashing and your clothes feel like sandpaper.

Imagine spending a day there, a week, a month, your whole life in this place. Imagine having autism.

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are a group of neurobiological disorders that impact several areas of a person’s development including socialising, behaviour, language and communication.

They are commonly referred to simply as autism and describe a wide spectrum of individuals, each impacted uniquely. At one end of the spectrum, individuals can be severely affected and have difficulty with everyday experiences. On the other hand, there are individuals who meet common milestones in life such as speaking, graduating from university, working, getting married and starting families. This means that no two people with autism are alike.

As the saying goes, “If you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with autism”

They are all different.
Worldwide, the World Health Organisation estimates that the number of people diagnosed with autism is one in 160 with the incidence in boys 4.5 times more than in girls. Sadly, the number of Africans with autism is not known since African countries, including Zimbabwe do not collect adequate data.

So what causes Autism?
Many factors contribute to increasing the chances that someone will develop autism and include both genetic and environmental components. Individuals of all races, socioeconomic classes and from all countries can develop autism. Most children are diagnosed between the ages of two and three.

How do you know if your child has autism?
The earliest signs that parents should be concerned about may be the absence of typical behaviour rather than anything specific that a child does. This can be difficult to identify as these early signs may be misinterpreted as indicative of a “quiet”, “undemanding”, “independent” or “good baby”.

As the child gets a little older, signs of possible autism include lack of or inadequate eye contact; not responding to their name; significantly reduced sounds, gestures and words used for communication; abnormalities in initiating contact with others; rigid routines; repetitive actions or irregular methods of playing with toys such as lining them up rather than actually playing with them.

Sometimes the parent has a gut feeling that something is a little off with their child. They can’t quite put their finger on it but just feel that something isn’t quite right. Concerned parents should speak to their doctor even if relatives are assuring them that the child takes after this relative or the other.

Although individuals with autism are impacted differently, they do share some common attributes related to how their brain is organised. Our brain is made up of neutrons which are equivalent to highways along which information travels at very high speed between the brain and the rest of the body. In autism, this highway network of neutrons is laid out differently and information takes longer to reach its destination and sometimes even gets lost along the way.

The brain is also where we process the information we receive from the environment and interpret it so that it makes sense. In autism, because the neutrons are organised differently, information is also processed differently. For example, sights, sounds or touch that don’t bother most people or are considered pleasant can be intolerable or even painful for someone with autism. Everyday sounds such as those produced by household appliances can be unbearable. Handshakes, pats on the shoulders and clothing can be torturous.

Another area that is commonly compromised in autism is executive functioning, which is the ability to plan and follow a series of steps towards achieving a certain goal. As a result, many people with autism have trouble with seemingly simple decisions in life skills or academic assignments despite obvious signs of their high intelligence. Moreover, individuals may have difficulty expressing what they are going through, even though they have the language skills. In fact, only a minority of individuals with autism never learn to speak or have minimal verbal language.

With appropriate early intervention and support, individuals with autism can make incredible strides. Unfortunately, in all parts of the world, the specialised services needed are typically expensive. In Zimbabwe, they are not widely available.

This severely limits the ability of individuals with autism to develop their full potential and be contributing members of society.

More than inadequate services, the lack of knowledge about autism negatively impacts not only the individuals with autism but also their families. Children are not diagnosed and offered early support. They are often punished for behaviours they cannot help. Families dealing with the additional needs of autism are stressed, strained financially and are often judged harshly by the extended family and society at large.

A few decades ago in Zimbabwe, ignorance about autism was understandable since there was very little information available. Since 2008, member states of the United Nations have been taking April 2, World Autism Awareness Day, to raise awareness about individuals with autism throughout the world.

Many countries use the entire month of April to accomplish this mission.

Whether you are knowledgeable about autism or not, it impacts people around you. People with autism are your friends, your relatives, your colleagues, your neighbours and strangers on your streets. Why not make 2017 the year in which you will learn about a big part of who they are; learn autism. With awareness will come acceptance, compassion and a better world for all. Ignorance is no longer a choice.

l Dr Sazini Nzula is the mother of two children with autism, advocate and Autism Parenting Coach. She is dedicated to raising awareness and improving the lives of Africans impacted by autism. You can get in touch with her on Twitter handle

@drsazini

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