World Autism Awareness Day: Health department calls on communities to support those on the spectrum

World Autism Awareness Day is observed annually on April 2. Picture: Pixabay

World Autism Awareness Day is observed annually on April 2. Picture: Pixabay

Published Apr 2, 2024


As World Autism Awareness Day is observed globally on April 2, the South African Health Department calls on families and communities to support people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to thrive and reach their full potential.

The department also urged people not to discriminate against those with autism.

The World Health Organization revealed that one in every 100 children globally has autism. In South Africa, local studies have found the prevalence of autism to be between 0.08% to 2%. This condition is mainly found to be more prevalent in males than females.

Autism can be a life-long condition, but through appropriate and tailored support, children and adults with autism can make significant progress and live fulfilling lives.

The use of standardised ASD screening and diagnostic tools is well-established in high-income countries. Developmental milestones screening is one of the key interventions to detect disorders like ASDs early and intervene early, as studies have shown that the median age of diagnosis of these conditions is between 18 to 24-months-old.

In South Africa, the Road to Health Booklet or Clinic Card issued to all children at birth helps parents monitor the health and development of each child until the age of five. This also assists in early identification and intervention when a child’s development does not align with the expected developmental milestones.

Early diagnosis and intervention of autism can significantly impact the child’s development and help families understand their child’s strengths and challenges and create a personalised treatment and support plan. Thus, parents are encouraged to familiarise themselves with the educational information contained in the Clinic Card.

Autistic individuals, their parents, and caregivers often face challenges, but this does not define them because they have the same health needs and rights as the general population.

The department said they may, in addition, have specific healthcare needs related to autism or other co-occurring conditions requiring attention, support, and care.

“All people, including those with autism, have the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. However, autistic people are often subjected to stigma and discrimination, including unjust deprivation of care, education, and opportunities to engage and participate in their communities.

“They have unique physical, social, mental healthcare and educational needs as a result of their conditions which require strong collaborative efforts with other government departments such as Basic Education and Social Development for the provision of an all-inclusive basket of services for early detection and intervention of ASD to improve their overall health outcomes and lessen long-term suffering and costs of care,” the health department said.

It said the awareness day is used as a platform to empower the public, health, and welfare services providers with information and also to dispel misconceptions, and promote a deeper understanding of autism to assist in reducing the stigma and discrimination through fostering a more inclusive environment for autistic persons and their families.

There is no cure for autism spectrum disorders, however, some medications are used to help people with ASD function better by treating co-occurring symptoms such as high energy levels, inability to focus, or self-harming behaviour including head banging or hand biting. Treatment can also help manage co-occurring mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression, and physical conditions such as seizures, and sleep problems.

“Symptoms and causes of autism may differ from child to child, but some common symptoms include difficulty with social interactions, delayed speech and language skills, and repetitive behaviours. Autism is primarily caused by nature (a genetic disorder), but the severity of autism can be influenced by nurture (environmental factors).

“Care for people with autism needs to be accompanied by actions at family, community, and societal levels for greater accessibility, inclusivity, and support, hence it is important to empower communities, including health workers, educators, and employers with knowledge and information about the conditions to ensure tolerance, support, and acceptance of autistic individuals,” the health department said.

If you suspect that you or your family member or child may have an autism spectrum disorder, visit your nearest healthcare facility or provider for screening and assessment to enable them to provide the necessary interventions or refer you, where necessary.

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