Autism has become quite a familiar word with most Ghanaians lately. Being aware that there is a condition known as autism does not however mean that they know they understand it. Anecdotal evidence suggests rising cases of autism in Ghana.
This implies the need for research in the area of autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders in Ghana.
Autism refers to a group of neurodevelopmental conditions that begin in early childhood and lasts a lifetime.
Autism occurs in all races, nationality, religion and background. It manifests itself as: persistent difficulties in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts and restricted/repetitive patterns of behaviours, interests or activities, as well as difficulty with flexibility of thought.
Neurodevelopmental means there are differences in the pattern of brain development. Autism affects people differently at every stage of their lives. The cause is unknown (idiopathic) although it is believed to be caused by many factors. There is no cure for autism.
Autism is prevalent across the globe. For autistic people to participate fully in society whiles enjoying equal opportunities, there is the need for society to understand the condition.
The lack of knowledge has a devastating effect on autistic people and their families. In Ghana, there are significant barriers to diagnosis and access to interventions for autistic people and other related neurological conditions.
The General Assembly of the UN declared April 2 World Autism Awareness Day as part of its effort to raise awareness of autism.
• Early intervention is key! Starting intervention early makes a huge difference in the progress a child makes. Seek help as soon as you are concerned about your child’s development.
• The role of the parents in the intervention process is key! It is a partnership between the clinician and the family.
• A diagnosis is not required for early intervention. Your child can start early intervention before being diagnosed.
• Do not listen to the ‘wait & see’ advice. Seek help now!
• Children with autism do not have identifiable physical features to make them different.
• Your child may need to be seen by the following professionals for specialised support – speech & language therapist, occupational therapist, clinical psychologist, dietician/nutritionist among others.
• Autism is a spectrum. Every child on the spectrum is unique! If you see one child with autism, you have only seen one child with autism.
• Not all children with autism are non-verbal. Some are verbal, some are not.
• Communication goes beyond just talking. The speech and language therapist may suggest other means of communication to support your child. These may include the use of gestures or pictures. Research shows that these are all helpful with communication.
• Autism has no cure.
• Follow your instincts as a parent and seek help if you are concerned about your child’s communication development. Yes, do!
• Be committed to your child’s intervention plans. It can be time consuming but worth the commitment!
• Sometimes progress may seem too slow but every progress counts. Celebrate the small wins!
• Therapy doesn’t end in the therapy room in the hospital or clinic. It continues at home. Without this, little or no progress will be made. Be part of your child’s journey.
• As a caregiver of a child with autism, joining self-help groups may be helpful to get support from others. These groups can also push for better services for autistic persons in Ghana.
• Be an advocate for autistic people. Talk to your family about autism and how they can help. Wherever you find yourself, try to explain to others what autism is and how they can help persons with autism.
• Read about research in autism to inform yourself.
The writer is a Speech & Language Therapist/Clinical Tutor, University of Ghana.