Did you know that 1 out of 100 children are born with an increasingly common disorder named Autism, which affect social and communicational skills?

Derived from the Greek word “autos” meaning “self” by Swiss psychiatrist, Eugen Bleuler, the term “Autism” has been around since early 1911 to describe conditions which remove a person from social interactions, hence, becoming an “isolated self” for the rest of one’s life and belongs to a group of similar disorders better known as the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). During the year of 1940, United State based researchers used the term to describe individuals experiencing social and communicational difficulties while a doctor from Johns Hopkins University applied the same word to describe withdrawn behavior found in children he studied. At around the same time, it was used by Hans Aspergers, a German scientist after whom Aspergers Syndrome is named. Statistics indicate that Autism is found to affect more boys than girls and is prevalent in children from a very tender age. When initially identified, clinicians suspected it to be an emotional disorder caused by the cold, rejecting style of parenting also referred to as “refrigerator mothers”, however, today, psychologists understand that the problem lies with the way in which the brain works rather than the way a child is raised. Amongst the causes of this disorder are genetics, severe infections that affect the brain such as meningitis, celiac disease and encephalitis as well as exposure to toxins during pregnancy like rubella.

Early symptoms include the inability to locate sounds, failure to respond to loud noises and very little speech if any at all. Unlike other similar aged kids, an autistic child will display no affection toward care givers and teachers or fear in reaction to unfamiliar people. They may lack interest in many aspects and will face physical challenges such as standing with or without support and may find hardship when climbing stairs. The heartbreaking signs don’t stop there. Children with Autism have academic difficulties reading, writing and understanding including symptoms similar to those of Hyperlexia and Echolalia. He/ she will show an unusual interest in a specific toy, topic and food type. Due to the isolated type of behaviour, these kinds of children won’t simply make friends or partake in make-believe play. If any of these symptoms are identified, a panel of experts comprising of paediatricians, occupational therapists, neurologists, physical therapists and developmental specialists should be consulted after which an evaluation consisting of several tests and checklists will diagnose the problem. A hearing test is usually performed to rule out the possibility of hearing loss.

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, treatments and cures found by researchers primarily relied on medications like LSD, electric shock and behavioural change techniques, the latter referring to pain and punishment. Unfortunately, there is no cure for this disorder. On the brighter side, governments from countries worldwide have created a special education category for autistic learners since 1991 while public schools began identifying children on the spectrum and offering them special services. Currently, the cornerstones of autism therapy are behavioural therapy, language therapy while additional treatments are added as required. Medications and dietary restrictions may be implemented to assist in controlling troublesome symptoms like seizures and hyperactivity. Social skills training can help kids improve their interpersonal functioning. For instance, in classrooms, peers without Autism can help those who have the disorder by teaching and modelling appropriate behaviour.  In aim of raising awareness of this disorder, a movie titled The Rain Man was released in 1988 starring Dustin Hoffman who portrays the role of an autistic savant who possessed the skills of a photographic memory but it should be noted that not every autistic child possesses these skills. Autistic children are extremely bright if you can connect to them and bring them into our world. Socially, it’s really hard for them, but it can happen. As a contribution to raising awareness, we’ve gone out in search of kids living with this. Aisha Mahomed*, a resident of Roshnee, Vereeniging experienced unusual difficulties with her little one from birth such as attachment issues, irregular sleeping patterns, excessive crying, hand flapping, head banging and showed no response to people around her. Realizing that this wasn’t normal, Aisha went from pillar to post seeking assistance until sessions with a homeopathic therapist led to the suspicion of Autism. She was then referred to an educational, occupational, speech and developmental therapists along with several blood tests all at Raheema Moosa Hospital. After Autism screening, her child was diagnosed with Autism and was advised to start her kid on medication. “It took years before the problem was found and its cause is still unknown” remarked disheartened Aisha. Moving forward, the 5 year old butterfly is successfully homeschooling and is proving to be quite a bright learner. According to Aisha, Autism doesn’t only affect the child with the disorder but also people around as unexplained temper tantrums draw unwanted attention and nasty remarks in public places. It is cases like these that show us the importance of raising awareness. It doesn’t only serve as a guide but as an eye opener too. Aisha further states “Teaching things to an autistic child is virtually impossible. It is only made possible through care, love, constant attention and moral support.”


*name has been changed to obtain anonymity