THE month of April is Autism Acceptance Month while the second day of April is recognised as World Autism Awareness Day.

In his message to mark World Autism Awareness Day, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres highlighted the need to support and include people with autism.

“On this World Autism Awareness Day, let us reaffirm our commitment to an inclusive, equitable and sustainable world for persons with autism,” he said.

Guterres bemoaned the fact that many persons with autism still live in isolation in institutions or even in homes, discriminated against and disconnected from their communities.

In Africa, autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is becoming one of the fastest growing developmental disabilities.

It is sad to note that despite it being one of the fastest growing developmental disabilities, most people in Africa do not know or have little knowledge about it.

In Zimbabwe, autism is considered one of the leading unrecognised disorders.

Faced with the disability or condition, most families find it difficult to accept and learn about it, therefore they associate it with witchcraft and evil spirits. 

Ignorance and lack of awareness has contributed to a lot of to stigmatisation, discrimination, abuse, isolation of autistic persons and affected families. 

With all this being said, one then might ask: What is autism or ASD?

Autism Awareness Centre gives the following definition:

“Autism is a lifelong, non-progressive neurological disorder typically appearing before the age of three years.

The word ‘autism’ means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and non-verbal communication and social interaction.

The classic form of autism involves a triad of impairments – in social interaction, in communication and use of language, and in limited imagination as reflected in restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behaviour and activities. 

Autism is a spectrum disorder. The symptoms and characteristics of autism can present themselves in a wide variety of combinations, from mild to severe.

Although autism is defined by a set of behaviours, children and adults can exhibit any combination of behaviours in any degree of severity. 

Two children, both with the same diagnosis, can act very differently from one another and have varying skills.”

As an Autism Acceptance Month, this April provides people with an opportunity to learn more about those afflicted with autism as well as support them by including them as part of their community.

Lack of awareness and limited, or no, resources in most schools in the country has seen many families with autistic children clueless of how to help them acquire proper education.

This publication observed that apart from limited resources, teachers in most schools have not received proper training for dealing with ASD.

Teacher training institutions offer curriculum-based inclusive education which cater for individual differences in disabilities yet ignore various types of ASD, leaving them confused and not understanding teaching strategies they can implement.

Though there are private schools designed for autistic children in the country, most parents cannot afford them; therefore, autistic children also face disadvantages when it comes to learning.

To give further awareness of ASD, Autism Awareness Centre notes that: “Children with ASD develop differently from other children. 

Children without ASDs develop at about the same rate in areas of development such as motor, language, cognitive and social skills. Children with ASDs develop at different rates in different areas of growth. 

They might have large delays in language, social, and cognitive skills, while their motor skills might be about the same age as other children their age.

They might be very good at things like putting puzzles together or solving computer problems, but not very good at some things most people think are easy, like talking or making friends. 

Children with ASD might also learn a hard skill before they learn an easy one. For example, a child might be able to read long words, but not be able to tell you what sound a ‘b’ makes. A child might also learn a skill and then lose it. For example, a child may be able to say many words, but later stop talking altogether (sic).”

Awareness of autism goes in line with UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) which focuses on ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all as the foundation for improving people’s lives and reducing inequalities.

The specific targets for SDG 4 refer to the need to ensure “…equal access to all levels of education and vocational training…”  for persons with disabilities and building and upgrading education facilities that are disability-sensitive and provide “…inclusive and effective learning environments for all.”

The SDG, therefore, supports the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Article 24 of the Convention recognises that persons with disabilities have the right to inclusive, quality education on an equal basis with others and that reasonable accommodation of the individual’s requirements should be provided.

Moreover, a recent release of  UNICEF’s Round 6  of the Multiple Indicator Cluster  Surveys (MICS6)  undertaken in  2017-2021 notes  that children with functional (disabilities), whether they can be of a physical behaviour or emotional nature can be at further disadvantage  when it comes to learning, especially if schools fail to make the necessary accommodations to facilitate their successful participation.

“Children who have functional difficulties may require special efforts to support them on their individual learning journeys, and their lower levels of achievement in some instances indicate that more needs to be done to provide them the support they need to succeed,” reads part of the report.

Given necessary support, people with ASD can live independently and be fully functional adults.

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