Autism month: awareness, treatment and inclusive education

Children diagnosed with neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism, experience various types of challenges at school Picture: Tumisu (Pixabay)

Children diagnosed with neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism, experience various types of challenges at school Picture: Tumisu (Pixabay)

Published Apr 12, 2024


THE month of April kicked off by celebrating and building awareness of autistic children for World Autism Month. World Autism Day was commemorated on April 2.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as a childhood developmental disability caused by differences in the brain.

Although there is limited scientific evidence to link the causes of autism, environmental toxins and genetics are believed to trigger ASD.

Scientists believe there are multiple causes of the disorder that act together to change the most common ways people develop. “Over the years, research has revealed that there is a gut-brain connection in autism and that we can discover and treat underlying causes such as food allergies, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, immune issues and inflammation,” said Illana Gerschlowitz, managing director of The Star Academy, an organisation specialising in autism, and other behavioural disorders.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that, approximately 1 in 100 children has autism on a global scale; the CDC added that the disorder was more prevalent in boys compared to girls. Children with ASD relay unusual behavioural patterns: problems with social interaction and communication, routine behaviour, picky eating, toe walking and hand flapping.

Gerschlowitz added: “The child with autism needs more help and support from the parent to do those things that come naturally to a normal developing child, such as feeding themselves, potty training and using vocal language to express their wants and needs. The child appears to be in their own world and does not respond consistently to their name being called, they will not make eye contact which will mostly be fleeting, do not follow instructions or play appropriately with their toys.”

However, some people without ASD also present some of these symptoms.

Gerschlowitz said there was limited knowledge about autism, regardless of race and economic class. But, an article by the Autism Parenting Magazine, written by Andreas Deolinda disagreed saying that poor and middle class households were likely to be uninformed about the disorder, due to limited access to quality education and healthcare.

Both parties agreed autism awareness was not prevalent, thus “Doctors and physicians fear diagnosing patients and often avoid it altogether. Hence, children are diagnosed at later stages. An added influence on autism diagnosis is the lack of qualified professionals,” said Deolinda.

Low income-autism affected-households were less likely to have adequate access to healthcare for treatment. “Therapies once or twice a month will fall short in addressing the child’s delays and contributing measurably to their development. They will require daily intervention. Children on the spectrum require intensive daily intervention and access to these services are not readily available to low income families,” said Gerschlowitz.

Due to lack of awareness and education of ASD and limited autism specialists, early intervention is delayed. ASD is a developmental disorder, henceforth, an experienced autism specialist diagnoses a child as early as between 12 and 18 months, when a child does not show the correct developmental stages in childhood.

Gerschlowitz noted that South Africa’s education system was not inclusive of autistic children, “We are very behind in SA in providing children with ASD the required educational support they need, and also behind in securing inclusive education. Some children on the spectrum will have prerequisite skills for school, which means they would benefit from being in a mainstream school with support. Other children don't have the necessary skills for school and require one-on-one instruction to learn functional skills such as toilet training, language, communication and basic skills to function,” she said.

Therefore, The Star Academy introduced a psychological teaching methodology designed for autistic children, Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). ABA focuses on teaching psychological and developmental skills, from social, imitation and playing skills; to language and adapting, cognitive and academic skills, and executive functioning.

“The developmental curriculum will allow us to identify missing developmental skills, and then enable us to customise lesson programs for each individual child to teach missing developmental skills. One of the big reasons we see a delay in skills in a developing child, is the lack of imitation skills. All social behaviour and language is based on imitation. Children on the spectrum most often don't naturally imitate their peers, or caregivers and need to be taught this skill,” concluded Gerschlowitz.

Saturday Star

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