Tackling the challenges of living with Autism

Every year, thousands of people around the world are diagnosed with some form of developmental disorder, including autism.

Tswelopele Makoe – IOL

April is Autism Awareness Month, while April 2 this year was World Autism Awareness Day. Both aim to highlight an infrequently-mentioned disability, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). According to Stats SA, two percent of South Africans have been diagnosed with ASD, while 7.5% has been diagnosed with some form of disability.

Autism is a developmental disorder that impairs a person’s ability to fully communicate and interact. It generally presents a broad range of difficulties, including challenges with social skills, obsessive or repetitive behaviour, non-verbal communication, sensory sensitivities, sleep disorders and seizures, among others.

Several factors may exacerbate the occurrence of autism. These include gastro-intestinal disorders, as well as mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression and attention issues.

Fortunately, autism can be diagnosed in children as young as eighteen to 24 months. This means ASD is detectable by parents and guardians, and the disorder can be managed according to the needs of the child.

Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning it has many subtypes. Its occurence involves a combination of genetic and environmental factors; each person with ASD embodies a particular set of challenges, as well as various strengths.

ASD causes people to think, learn and solve problems differently to others. In some instances, this requires a significant amount of support, while in other cases people live fully-independent lives.

According to Autism Speaks – a non-profit autism awareness organisation – early intervention in cases of those diagnosed with ASD leads to positive outcomes later in life. Over time, educational resources, as well as behavioural and family therapies, may reduce ASD symptoms. Many organisations and programmes are available to address the challenges presented by ASD.

World Autism Awareness Day was declared by the United Nations in 2007 to create awareness of what it has described as a “growing global health crisis”.

Numerous people with disabilities such as ASD live strenuous lives. It is particularly difficult for those with disabilities to access educational and employment opportunities. Additionally, many institutions, structures and establishments do not consider the needs of people with disabilities. Many teachers, customer service representatives, religious leaders and medical care employees, among others, are unaware and untrained in addressing the challenges posed by autism.

Further, disabilities are more prevalent among women than they are among men. The available data suggests that 8.3% of females in South Africa are living with disabilities compared to 6.5% of males. Moreover, the prevalence of people living with disability increases with age, as more than half of people aged 85 and older live with some form of disability.

Research has shown it is better to take preventative measures to lessen the chances of one being diagnosed with a disability. This is especially valuable for young adults, who are more likely to neglect positive health habits. Eating a healthy diet, regularly exercising, embracing positive mental health practices, regular medical check-ups and refraining from excessive alcohol and drug use, are key to ensuring people are in optimal health as they get older.

Socioeconomic issues also play a pivotal role in the occurrence of disabilities. Those who live in unsafe environments are more vulnerable to poor health as a result of, for example, polluted water, air pollution and exposure to harmful chemicals. Others live in densely-populated areas, travel in excessively overcrowded transport, and work in unsafe facilities. As a result, they are particularly vulnerable to respiratory diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis, which can trigger a range of other illnesses, especially among older people.



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