World Autism Awareness Day was initiated eight years ago to draw attention to the increasing prevalence and high rate of autism in children all over the world.
Designating the date as April 2, the UN National Assembly unanimously voted to establish this as an annual day to globally commemorate autism, in order to “highlight the need to help improve the lives of children and adults who suffer from the disorder so they can lead full and meaningful lives”.
Characterised by impaired social interaction
Autism is characterised by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behaviour. These signs all generally begin before a child is three years old.
However, there is evidence that with the right treatment, children with autism do not necessarily have to be subjected to autism as a lifelong condition, with cases of children with autism successfully recovering and many leading functional independent lives.
“Autism is a treatable medical condition and recovery is possible. This is the message of World Autism Awareness Day (WAAD) that we want to share,” says Ilana Gerschlowitz, Managing Director of The Star Academy which specialises in tailor-made instructional programmes addressing the specific needs of each child presenting on the Autism Spectrum.
“Many individuals on the spectrum experience medical issues including gastrointestinal problems, immune system dysfunction, and metabolic abnormalities. For this reason, children on the Autism Spectrum often improve their symptoms on medications such as Cortizone and immunomodulators, rather than from psychiatric medication which is often prescribed as a first line treatment for these children,” says Gerschlowitz.
“Furthermore, they respond very well to many interventions including nutritional support, restricted diets, specifically designed educational programmes, together with Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) instruction.”
The ABA method of instruction, recommended by the American Academy of Paediatrics and the US Surgeon General, uses positive reinforcement as a key principle and has been empirically proven to be the most effective method for treating individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
School assists kids in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban
ABA is also a founding principle of The Star Academy whose facilities help children on the African continent in Ghana and Zimbabwe, while closer to home, the school assists children based in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban.
Despite progress in treatment, figures indicate an increase in the number of children with autism. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one of the major operating arms of the Department of Health and Human Services in the USA, estimates that about 1 in 68 children in American society has been identified with ASD.
This reveals a steady increase in the numbers of children affected: In 2007, the figure (based on 2002 data) showed 1 in 150 children had ASD, changing in 2009 (based on 2006 data) to 1 in 110.
Reports in 2012 (based on 2008 data) showed that 1 in 88 children, which means that the estimated prevalence of ASD has increased roughly 29% since 2008, 64% since 2006, and 123% since 2002. Currently 1 in 99 children born each day in South Africa are affected by the disorder, almost on par with the United Kingdom, where just over 1 in 100 children are affected with autism.
“The increase in the number of children affected may be a result of a broader definition of ASD together with improvements in diagnosis. However, according to the CDC, the stats may also reflect a real increase in the number of people with an ASD, resulting in the organisation attributing the increase in ASD diagnosis to a combination of these factors,” says Gerschlowitz.
World Autism Awareness Day plays a role in addressing the increasing numbers and other issues around ASD, creating awareness of the advantages of early diagnosis and intervention. The day is commemorated worldwide through special events, fundraisers and educational programmes.
WAAD opens doors
“As is the case with most communities, the autism community is often insular and WAAD opens the door between the world of autism and neurotypical people, allowing a sharing of respect through understanding of the condition and its impact on children and families globally.
“Solidarity is further expressed by businesses, municipalities and governments around the world by the lighting up of significant buildings and locations in blue light,” says Gerschlowitz.
Some of the iconic landmarks which have honoured the day by lighting up in blue include the Empire State Building in New York; the Eiffel Tower in Paris; the Leaning Tower of Pisa; Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to name but a few of the many places throughout the world which play a vital role in creating awareness around the condition of autism.
“WAAD is a significant day in the autism calendar, providing an opportunity for people to become involved and make a difference. We encourage children, parents, people in business, the private sector and at school to participate and show solidarity on the day.
By wearing something blue or sharing the global connection of lighting up in blue, we can all make South Africa part of this global initiative which provides a powerful message of support and hope for a better future through acknowledgement of the day,” says Gerschlowitz.
World Autism Awareness Month extends from throughout the month of April.