Giving Autism Management Priority

 As Nigeria joined the rest of the world to mark the World Autism Day recently, Martins Ifijeh writes on the need for stakeholders to give the neurological condition priority, given that over one million children and teenagers are affected by the condition in the country

It is no longer news that over one billion persons around the world are living with neurological disorders, representing one in every seven persons. What seems to be the news is that despite the high number of people suffering from the disorder, little attention is beamed on tackling it by the various health bodies and stakeholders across the globe.
Breaking down the neurological disorders, a report revealed that 326 million people are suffering from migraine, 135 million people from autism, 62 million people from cerebrovascular diseases, 50 million people from epilepsy, 24 million people from alzheimer’s disease and several millions of people suffering from other forms of neurological disorders.
Of the 135 million established cases of autism in the world, it is worrisome that more than one million children and teenagers are suffering from the condition in Nigeria, with majority of them termed imbeciles, fools and even witches, without medical and psycho-social help.
Unfortunately for autistic persons, most Nigerians choose to believe in superstitions and myths, especially on issues that ordinarily require a fix. Diagnosis and management of autism in the country has been a major casualty from this pathetic belief system of the citizens. Autism is one of the most ignored health issue in the country, even with the high number of sufferers.
Autism, according to the medical dictionary is a life-changing disorder characterised by a withdrawal from contact with people, repetitive behaviour, and fear of change in the environment. The emotional disorder affects the brain’s ability to receive and process information.
Stakeholders believed there was urgent need to raise awareness on the disorder, as well as put special facilities in place to tackle the scourge, adding that steps should be taken to harness the extra ordinary talents from specific gifted autistic persons in the country.
Speaking with THISDAY, the President, Network of Autism Associates, a non- governmental organisation that focuses on raising awareness on the disorder, as well as helping sufferers, Dr. Jude Onoji, called for increased enlightenment campaigns that would make parents, friends and right groups present cases of the disorder for diagnosis and management, rather than perceive the victims as cursed and abnormal people.
He said one of the advantages of the enlightenment campaigns was that it would help parents know on time when their children are down with the syndrome so that they can be managed on time.
“With increased awareness on the scourge, most people will know what signs to look out for in their wards, differentiate it with downs syndrome and most importantly, present them for diagnosis and treatment on time.
“It is easier to treat an autistic person of about two years of age than an autistic child of more than seven years. When diagnosed on time, the children would have an improved health than when they are older than seven years,” he said. He, however, said that autistic persons who were older than seven years could also be treated, but that the level of improvement would not be as fast as that of the child who started treatment at about two years.
According to him, in addition to awareness campaigns, stigmatisation has also hampered the success that should be recorded in reducing the scourge in the country. “Because of this, many sufferers think of it as a genetic mark of shame on the entire family, and a major obstacle to all of their children’s chances of finding suitable spouses,” he added.
This, he said was also a reason why awareness campaigns should be on so that the society would rather embrace autistic persons and help them, rather than despise and neglect them, thereby compounding their issues.
He stressed that people must understand how an autistic person thinks and acts, so that cohabiting and interacting with them would not cause them more harm. “Generally, many autistic persons are maltreated and discriminated. People see them as cursed because of the way the symptom presents itself. Though majority of persons who discriminate against autistic persons believe all humans should have a ‘reasonable’ facial look and behavioural pattern, unlike autistic persons who are different,” he said.
Onoji, added that Nigerians should view autistic people as though they were just different, not that they were unreasonable and abnormal persons living in a normal and sane life.
According to him, “people who have autism find it difficult to act in a way other people think is ‘normal’. They find it difficult to talk to people, look at people and often do not like being touched by others. A person who has autism seems to be turned inwards. They may talk only to themselves, rock themselves backwards and forwards, and laugh at their own thoughts. They do not like any type of change and may find it difficult to learn a new behaviour like using a toilet or going to school.”
He said it was important people understand this, especially the fact that they are slow learners, so that when they are being thought new things, patience and maturity would be applied.
“Correcting a person without autism may be very easy, but for an autistic person, it may take a lot of efforts and patience before they can be accustomed to it,” he said. Adding that, there were also very gifted autistic persons who need special attention to be able to harness these gifts and become better persons to the society.
“Some autistic people are extraordinarily gifted or talented. This group of people are said to also have savant syndrome. They are often very good at just one thing in particular, like mathematics, playing the piano or remembering football scores. If we come across such persons, it is important we help them build these skills and try to bring out the best of it. They deserve our collective love to become whoever they deserve to be in future,” he added.
Among some popular and extraordinarily talented persons known to have autism, she said, “Satoshi Tajiri, the creator of Pokemon, Donna William, the author of the bestselling “Nobody Nowhere”, and John Elder, a popular and renowned author, yet they are even role models to millions of people who are not autistic,” he stated.
For a public health physician, Dr. Gold Femi-Adewusi, the government has neglected autistic persons for long, adding that it was important they be given priority in the country through separate budget allocation and special centres to tackle the disorder.
According to her, this priority should mean that the cost of treatment of the disorder will be subsidised so that children of the poor can also access the facilities. “This also means government will establish special autism schools such that even poor autistic persons can attend,” the physician explained.
She berated the government for spending on issues that have less bearing on its citizens, adding that it should rather place focus on assisting people with autism in Nigeria. “Autistic people must be given love, identified with, listened to and given time to express themselves. These will be more effective when government allocate special centres and schools for them because of their slow pace in taking in information. “If you go to South Africa, they have over six special schools for autism alone. But here in Nigeria, not even one has been established by the Nigerian government,” she said.
She also called on people to learn about the disorder as this would help people know how to relate with them. “They may not like being touched or forced to learn new things. They are slow learners, sometimes emotionless, they may respond slowly to questions, may be unable to respond to questions asked in quick succession and most times prefer being left alone,” she said.
In an interview, the World Health Organisation’s Director General, Dr. Margaret Chan, called on member countries to integrate neurological disorders like autism into the Primary Health Care system in their country since for many people, it was the only access to medical treatment that they have and doctors can use low-technology interventions as well as community-based rehabilitation as an option.