Help for children with autism

_: Children born with autism – a neurological disorder characterised by impaired social interaction and communication, as well as restricted and repetitive behaviour – are often dismissed in black communities as bewitched or demon possessed or even mentally disabled. As a result of these misconceptions, children with autism are not cared for in a way that meets their specific needs.

This is the theme that emerged today in a dialogue meeting between the Department of Social Development and parents of children with autism, held in Gugulethu, Cape Town.

The challenge in providing proper care for children with autism is exacerbated by the fact that there are not enough doctors in the country trained to diagnose the condition. This was the sentiment of Ms Siphokazi Mtshotshisa – a parent of a child with autism.

“My child was diagnosed with autism at the age of four by an American doctor who was visiting South Africa. Before that I had consulted with many doctors who could not pinpoint the problem,” said Mtshotshisa.

As a result of her experiences, Mtshotshisa has started the Moonlight Foundation for Autism to help parents of children with autism provide proper care for their children. If autism is diagnosed early and proper care given to a child, its effects can be minimised.

While the Department of Social Development does not have a specific programme for assisting autistic children, it has prioritised early childhood development in its key programmes. Minister for Social Development, Ms Bathabile Dlamini says her department wants to see an early childhood development centre in every ward.

“Early childhood development is important because the first one thousand days (from conception) of a child, as well as the first two years of their lives, are when most of the child’s development in terms of cognitive capabilities and emotional wellbeing take place. This is also the period when any challenge with a child, including conditions like autism, can be identified and managed in time,” says Minister Dlamini.

The Department of Social Development hosted this engagement to try and dispel the misconceptions in black communities around children with autism. The Department is also trying to learn more about the condition from parents caring for autistic children in order that effective educational campaigns can be crafted, and the best possible assistance be provided to those caring for autistic children.

Autism is categorised as a disability in South Africa. A government process is underway to define and determine all conditions that must be categorised as disabilities.

The department is in Gugulethu conducting a series of dialogue meetings with various special groups in an effort to gain a better understanding of their challenges and aspirations in order to assist them improve their lives. On May 11, the department will engage youths with albinism at the Gugulethu Sports Complex.

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Lumka Oliphant
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