By Simcha Van Bel - Du Plooy
What is it?
Autism is a neurological and developmental disability. It affects patterns of development, including a person’s ability to communicate, understand language, play and socially interact with others. A child with Autism may struggle with language delays, or may have language but struggle to use it in a conversational turn taking manner. They may take a literal interpretation of language, thus making comprehension and socialising difficult. They may struggle to take other people’s perspective (theory of mind) and / or struggle with understanding non-verbal language such as gestures and facial expressions. Behaviours can include inflexibility, stereotyped and repetitive actions, over and under sensitivity to environmental stimuli, and an obsessive preoccupation with certain interests.
Autism is more common in boys than in girls and is found in all socio-economic and cultural groups. Autism is on a spectrum and people diagnosed as ‘Autistic’ can vary largely in behaviours, skills, and abilities. There is no single behaviour that is always typical or present in every individual with Autism, and no two people on the Autism spectrum are exactly the same. In addition, there are many other difficulties that can present themselves alongside Autism, namely Epilepsy, Dyspraxia, Speech Apraxia, Anxiety, Attention and Concentration difficulties, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, to name but a few. This makes Autism incredibly complex and is the reason why there are so many scientists currently researching into it. In essence, we need more answers!
At present there are many questions about the causes of Autism and the best intervention plan to follow. This can make the world of Autism very frustrating for parents. A word of advice would be to read, research and relax (at least try to relax – easier said than done). Don’t let anybody push you into a ‘miracle cure’. The intervention plan for Autism is a journey. It can have ups and downs. You may witness incredible progress in a child and then a plateau or a regression even. This is not unusual and it is part of any child’s journey – be they on the Autism spectrum or not. The important thing is to have a supportive intervention team that is working towards clear, realistic goals for the child. It is also important that the parents themselves are being supported, as parenting a child on the spectrum can be very demanding, no matter how much love you have to give and how much patience you have.
People diagnosed with Autism are able to learn skills, however they may need to be taught somewhat differently. Children diagnosed with Autism can be mainstreamed and can do very well at school, while others may be more suited to home schooling, attending a special needs school or classroom, or going to school with a facilitator (a type of ‘helping hand’). There are more and more resources becoming available in Cape Town and in South Africa as a whole.
Home programs can be a great place to start and there are many people in Cape Town offering such programs. For such home programs, generally speaking - the earlier you start, the better the results. You can even start working with children as young as 2-3 years old. When it comes to schooling, decisions must be made with the child’s best interests at heart and home programs can prepare the child for schooling. Schools such as Vera in Rondebosch and Alpha in Woodstock are specific ‘Autism’ schools in Cape Town, however, there are many other schools available as well – some of which are special needs schools and others, which have incorporated an ‘inclusion’ system that allows children with special learning needs to be integrated into the mainstream curriculum. Other children may not even need any adaptation of the school or curriculum and may function perfectly well within a mainstream school – it really depends on the child and where they are cognitively, socially and emotionally at that time.
Resources: Who can help?
There are many people available in Cape Town who can assist - this is just a handful of them:
- Carrie McDonald – Speech therapist with special interest in Autism (083 254 6593)
- Chantal – Individualised programs, School Support, Parent Support & Training
(contact www.onspectrum.co.za ; 021 552 2307)
- Lea Ferguson – Home Programs, School Inclusion, Social Skills
(contact - Play Solutions www.childdevelopmentnetwork.co.za ; 0741 308 374)
- Philna Badenhorst – Music Therapy with special interest in Autism (072 215 1650)
- Romi Kruger – Occupational Therapist with special interest in Autism
(contact - 082 536 0919; email@example.com)
The author of this article, Simcha Van Bel – Du Plooy is a Registered Counsellor and Psychometrist with a special interest in Autism. She has been working with children on the Autism spectrum for over 8 years and can also be contacted for further information directly through the Claremont Practice or on 0837224727.
Organisation in Cape Town that can be contacted for more information:
Just a few of the available books with a focus on Autism:
Playing, Laughing, and Learning with Children on the Autism Spectrum. A Practical Resource of Play Ideas for Parents and Carers. By Julia Moor. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Autism, Play and Social Interaction. By L. Gammeltoft and M.S. Nordenhof. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Children on the Bridge. A Story of Autism in South Africa by Kirsten Miller.
Sensory Intelligence. Why it matters more than IQ and EQ. By Annemarie Lombard. Metz Press.