GTB: Championing Awareness against Autism

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With about one million children and teenagers living with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Nigeria, Guaranty Trust Bank’s Orange Ribbon Initiative are raising awareness to bring more knowledge to tackling the scourge. Martins Ifijeh writes

With a scary statistics showing that over one billion people around the world are living with neurological disorders, representing one in every seven people globally, it is no doubt a health emergency that needs priority by all stakeholders and the World Health Organisation.

Breaking down the various neurological disorders, a report revealed that 326 million people are suffering from migraine, 135 million people from autism, 62 million from cerebrovascular diseases, 50 million people from epilepsy, 24 million from alzheimer’s disease and several millions of people suffering from other forms of neurological disorders.

Of the 135 million established cases of autism globally, it is worrisome that over one million children and teenagers are suffering from the condition in Nigeria, with majority of them termed imbeciles, fools and even witches; an approach that makes medical and psycho-social help difficult.

Unfortunately for autistic persons in the country, Nigerians choose to believe in superstitions and myths, especially on issues that ordinarily require a fix. Diagnosis and management of the condition has been a major casualty due to the pathetic belief system of the citizens; hence it is one of the most ignored health issue in the country despite the high number of sufferers.

However, it is in tackling this condition that Guarantee Trust Bank, through its Orange Ribbon Initiative, an advocacy programme which seeks to support children living with Autism and other developmental disabilities, has decided to sparehead initiatives against the disability, by providing awareness on the condition, reawaken people’s social consciousness about the plight and requirements of children living with ASD, integrate centres for adults, then sponsor, support and lobby for legislation that protects the rights of people living with the challenges, among others.

Prior to 2009 when the initiative started, there was little or no information about autism in Nigeria, as knowledge of the situation was scarce among parents and medical practitioners.

In parents’ frustration, they found coping methods which included locking up the children and not allowing any form of interaction with other children, since they were supposedly ‘abnormal’.

Speaking at the Sixth Annual Autism Conference, organised by the bank, which was held about this time last year, tagged ‘Managing Autism: The Next Generation, Considerations and Resources’, the Executive Director, Blazing Trails International Centre (BTIC), Dr. Anna Lamikanra, said the forum was to create new ideas on how to manage autism, adding that autism was poorly managed because of inadequate knowledge of how to go about it.

Lamikanra said Autism appears in children about 24 months after their birth, saying that parents often think they have a normal child until the regression in their behaviour sets in, noting that a medical test can reveal which child would develop Autism.

The main features of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), she said, were problems with social communication and interaction. “Autistic children have unusual behaviours, such as failing to make eye contact, not responding to their names or playing with toys in unusual, repetitive ways. These children may suddenly become withdrawn or aggressive or lose language skills they have already acquired,” she said.

According to the Managing Director, Guaranty Trust Bank, Mr. Segun Agbaje, considering the high number of children and teenagers going through the condition in the country, the initiative then decided to provide a one-on-one autism assessment sessions with ASD professionals from the United States of America in partnership with the College of Medicine, University of Lagos and Neuropsychiatric Hospital Aro, Abeokuta, which has been going on for years.

“We have also used this platform to provide access to modern information and practical technology for Autism practitioners, special educators, teachers and parents through teachings on various subjects. We have facilitated the establishment of a standard system for diagnosing Autism in children, as well as provide an affordable platform for general teachers, therapists, physicians and special educators in Nigeria to obtain qualifications in Autism Spectrum Disorder. The Initiative has also provided training for teachers of children with special needs, among others,” he said.

He explained that GTBank has held the annual conference for six years and within the period, the participation of the Nigerian community has significantly increased. “The community is more aware, reducing stigmatisation and increasing the need for early diagnosis and intervention. In the past seven years also, we have been able to build a community of medical practitioners and caregivers who are willing to learn and teach others about autism and its management and has also encouraged parents to seek the necessary medical and educational help that will help their children.”

He said so far, special care units have been introduced in some schools, parents have learnt to understand and care for their children and some of them have been integrated into regular schools.

“Since the inception of the annual conference and consultation, we have seen a steady increase in the number of participants in the annual conference and one-on-one consultation sessions. This implies that the Orange Ribbon Initiative has played a major part in creating awareness for Autism. As awareness grows, there is a pronounced need for improvement in intervention schemes in Nigeria,” he added.

The 7th annual conference is billed to hold today, with the theme: Childhood to Adulthood: Communications and Social Development.