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Public awareness a key to addressing autism
The experts are estimating that a relatively high number of people, needlessly committed to psychiatric institutions and care over the years, had actually been affected by the now manageable condition known as autism.
The key to adequately addressing the situation is early detection and the wider availability of trained teachers and specialists to guide proper treatment and care.
Growing recognition of the condition and the required therapies has helped reverse the trend somewhat within recent years. But, not enough, suggests autism expert, Meghan Lee-Waterman.
“In a country like T&T there is a great need to promote autism awareness as there is a vast lack of understanding about this neurological condition which affects children of any and every ethnic background,” she told the T&T Guardian.
Speech-language therapist, Nadita Maharaj, says the current estimate of 8,000 and 10,000 affected nationals means that the condition can “no longer be viewed from a minority perspective.”
“These numbers steadily rise from year to year,” she said, “as seen in the most recent international statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) of the USA indicating that currently one in 68 American children are on the autistic spectrum.”
Lee-Waterman believes achieving higher levels of public awareness holds the key to more meaningful interventions. “With better awareness comes the increased chance to help those diagnosed and to strive to assist them to become as independent as possible,” she said.
She is of the view that “the more aware the teachers in a school are, the better able they are to deal with a child displaying maladaptive or challenging behaviours.”
According to Lee-Waterman educating the educators represents a most important “first start.”
“Far too many teachers in T&T are untrained and generally unaware of how to deal with special needs children,” she said in an interview with the T&T Guardian. “The Ministry of Education must put into place sufficient programmes to educate teachers on special education, not just in terms of academics but holistically with respect to practical life skills, social skills (and) emotional regulation.”
She laments the fact that she has offered her services as an educational adviser, specialising in autism, to the Ministry of Education and has so far received no response. Such an offer, she claims, has also been made by a number of child psychologists, speech therapists and occupational therapists with the same result.
Autism is a spectrum spanning from very mild cases all the way to quite severe cases. According to Lee-Waterman, the milder forms of autism may go undiagnosed and people are sometimes branded as “strange” or “weird” due to a lack of social skills.
It is also sometimes described as the “invisible condition” as there are no distinctive physical traits such as Down Syndrome, for example.
“Many times society can be unforgiving to differently-abled people,” Lee-Waterman said. “Often I have been out with a group of children with autism and dealt with stares and comments about a child's behaviour for flapping or jumping or covering their ears.”
Such responses, she says, can only addressed by aggressively dealing with a deficit in levels of public education and awareness. The sooner achieved, she says, the better.
Around the world, April is being recognised as Autism Awareness Month.