- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects communication, social interaction, and behaviour. Symptoms and severity vary greatly.
- Globally, there has been a significant shift in how people perceive autism. In the past, autistic people were frequently misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and stigmatised.
- Autism is not a disease or illness; it's simply a difference in how people think and interact. Acceptance has grown in recent years due to technological advancements.
Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a developmental condition that affects how people act, interact, and communicate. Some autistic people have severe difficulties with language and social interaction, but others might have more subtle differences.
Before my official diagnosis in 2022, I searched for answers on the Internet after observing my reading and communication patterns in 2020. Because several conditions have similar symptoms, I thought I had many things, including autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and dyslexia.
When I spoke to Aanu Jide-Ojo, Psychologist and CEO of mental healthtech company, UsTherapy, on self-diagnosis, she said, "psychological assessment is nuanced as several disorders mimic each other, so one can choose a label that isn't correct."
Because of the stigma attached to autism, I chose incorrect labels — ADHD and dyslexia.
Speaking with a professional helped me discover the truth. I'm autistic.
When I asked my therapist — a clinical psychologist — about my reading and comprehension issues, he talked about how autism can interfere with communication. It can also be affected by one's inability to organise their thoughts, think clearly on one's feet, or even remember details immediately. My diagnosis became clear to me at that point.
While I have specific symptoms, like difficulties with reading and comprehension, this does not imply that other autistic individuals will exhibit the same.
Autism is a "spectrum" disorder because symptoms and severity can differ greatly from person to person.
People with autism may struggle with social skills like eye contact, reading social cues, and making and maintaining friendships. For instance, I struggle to express myself verbally and find it awkward to maintain eye contact. Most of the time, my emotions are a huge blur.
Autistic people may engage in repetitive behaviours or routines like rocking, hand flapping, or lining up objects. They might also have a high or low sensitivity to different sounds, sights, smells, or textures.
For example, I can't stand crowds, parties, or spicy food because these stimuli cause sensory overload and burnout for me.
Notably, being autistic does not mean you have an illness or disease. It just means your brain works differently. It’s also not mental retardation or lack of intelligence.
How far have we come with autism acceptance in Africa?
Over time, there has been a significant shift in how people perceive autism globally. Autistic people were frequently misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and stigmatised in the past.
They were labelled "mentally retarded," "eccentric," or "psychotic," and they wound up in institutions where they received little to no assistance.
Until researchers like Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger worked hard to understand it in the 20th century, nobody acknowledged autism as a distinct neurodevelopmental disorder.
The consensus was that autism was a severe, uncommon, and difficult-to-treat disorder. The idea of autism acceptance didn't catch on until the 1990s and 2000s.
Before we dig further, it's crucial to understand what autism acceptance means.
So, what is autism acceptance?
Autism acceptance is the shift in perspective from basic awareness to substantive change.
When you include an autistic person in your activities, support their integration into the community, and foster their connection to others, you demonstrate acceptance rather than merely being aware that someone has autism.
The first step in accepting someone with autism is to educate yourself by defining and learning more about the neurodevelopmental disorder.
It also means acknowledging that adjustments are required to give autistic people the best possible chance of thriving in a world that isn't always easy to live in.
In Africa, autism acceptance and understanding varies by country and region. Some countries still have a poor understanding of the neurodevelopmental disorder, leading to stigma, discrimination, and limited access to services and support.
On the continent, autism was frequently associated with paranormal causes or considered a curse due to infidelity or being possessed by an evil spirit, excluding autistic people from their communities. Specialised services and support for people with autism and their families were also lacking.
However, today, in many African nations, there is a growing understanding of the value of early diagnosis and intervention for autism. There are also initiatives to improve services, support access, and increase autism awareness.
But some issues still need to be resolved, including a shortage of skilled workers, a scarcity of resources, and cultural inequalities. Despite this, increased awareness, advocacy, and education are helping to increase autism acceptance and recognition, thanks to the Internet.
How is technology influencing autism acceptance?
Autism acceptance and understanding still have a long way to go in Africa because many people continue to face discrimination and bullying.
As mentioned earlier, autism is not an illness, so it doesn't require treatment. Adults with autism and parents of autistic children can devise coping mechanisms at work, school, or home.
These coping mechanisms, however, are heavily dependent on how aware and accepting an institution, such as a workplace or a school, is of autism.
Interestingly, technology is changing the narrative.
Some African organisations are working to increase autism awareness and encourage acceptance and comprehension of the condition locally and online. For instance, non-profit organisations like the Autism Society of Kenya and The Zeebah Foundation in Nigeria support and educate people about autism.
The Internet is also a tool for creating awareness and sensitising Africans. For example, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram enable individuals, organisations, and advocacy groups to disseminate information about autism, publicise events, and share stories about autistic people.
There is also a growing understanding of the significance of early diagnosis and intervention and the need for assistance and modifications to enable people with autism to flourish in the classroom, workplace, and community.
For example, an electroencephalogram (EEG) is a test tool used to detect the brain’s electrical activity. It can also serve as a biomarker for autism.
To improve communication, using assistive technology, including visual boards, picture exchange communication systems (PECS), and low and high-technology interventions in some African schools shows autism acceptance.
For context, autistic people can communicate using symbols, pictures, text, and augmented and alternative communication (AAC) apps. This fosters independence, boosts social interaction, and enhances communication.
Children use AAC apps to communicate their wants and needs, exchange information, and interact socially. These apps can be tailored to a person's needs and preferences, making them especially useful for those having trouble communicating verbally.
There are also speech-generating devices, similar to AAC apps but typically specialised communication devices. They provide synthesised speech and can be programmed with words, phrases, and sentences to improve communication for people with autism.
Autistic people can benefit from personalised learning opportunities, which involve using educational software, online tools, and virtual reality tools to design a learning experience unique to each person's needs.
Requesting accommodations has demonstrated how understanding some African employers are of autism, depending on the autistic employee’s workplace's location and the severity of their condition.
Although there is still a long way to go, many Africans, including me, benefit from the increasing inclusion and acceptance of people with autism.
Happy World Autism Awareness Day!