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Help fight stigma against autistic children

Thursday, January 11th, 2024 08:16 | By
Representation of autistic children. PHOTO/Pexels
Autistic children. PHOTO/Pexels

At first glance, not many people can tell six-year-old Peter has a peculiar behavioural problem. Physically, he is alright and does some things that normal children are fond of.

However, it is only when you look at him a little longer that you notice some peculiarities in his behaviour.
Peter is hyperactive. At home, everyone is on their toes as he runs around the house pulling things down.

He will mess at the slightest opportunity, spilling drinks from glasses and dropping utensils, even if they have food on them. You will also notice that, unlike children his age, Peter cannot talk. In addition, he still soils himself and has to be fed like a baby.

The same script is repeated in public, for instance, when the family attend Mass on Sunday. Peter is the kid who will run to the altar during the homily, with his mother or father in hot pursuit. If not stopped in time, he will pull down the altar cloth, which can have serious consequences for the consecration.

Peter cannot sit still for more than a few minutes at a time, and will distract everyone’s attention at a very inopportune moment by screaming.

Consequently, his parents and siblings will settle on a plan so that one of them walks him on the church grounds. This might go on for some years depending on how long it takes for Peter to eventually calm down from his tantrums and meltdowns. It is quite an experience dealing with this kind of character.

Those who might not understand that Peter is autistic will naturally be judgemental about his parents’ poor parenting skills. They will say the boy is a spoilt brat who has not been taught good manners.

This misunderstanding will only make matters worse as people will shun the child in public, while the parents may also decide to keep him out of the public glare to avoid embarrassing comments and reactions.

Autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterised, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviours among other behavioural defects.

Autism appears to have its roots in very early brain development.

However, the most obvious signs of autism and symptoms tend to emerge between two and three years of age. Although autism is usually associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination, attention and physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances, some persons with ASD mature and excel in careers like visual skills, music, math and art.

My 14-year-old son is also autistic. He has a few delayed milestones, which means we still have to perform several tasks for him that should be routine by now. Like other misunderstood health conditions, there is a lot of stigma associated with autism.

Many equate it with mental problems or other conditions like dyslexia or downs syndrome. Still, autistic children need special care. Only strong willed parents are able to withstand the curious looks from strangers.

Many of their anti-social or excessive behaviours are triggered by certain elements in the environment or certain foods, especially sugars and gluten (wheat) products, animal products like meat and milk, and assorted fruits and vegetables.

Their diet needs constant monitoring which can be quite expensive. The gaps are usually filled by supplements, particularly those with a high content of Omega 3.

So the next time you see an “unruly” child, please take time to understand what is happening in his or her life. Autism is a difficult health disorder for the child, parents and caregivers.

It teaches them the virtue of patience as they wait years for their child to perform tasks that normal children take for granted.

— The writer is a PhD candidate in International Relations

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