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Autism awareness



Wednesday, 2nd April 2008, was declared World Autism Day by the United Nations. This declaration is significant because Autism is only the third disorder to have a day dedicated to its recognition by this international body. The other two are diabetes and HIV/AIDS.{{more}}

Autism was first written about in a medical journal in 1943 when Kanner, an Austrian child psychiatrist working from Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, introduced the label “early infantile autism.” He wrote: “Since 1938, there have come to our attention a number of children whose condition differs so markedly and uniquely from anything reported so far, that each case merits – and I hope will eventually receive – a detailed consideration of its fascinating peculiarities”.

Although not every child has all the same symptoms or the same severity of symptoms, in general, children with autism are socially impaired, may have language or communication difficulties, and exhibit some unusual behaviours, such as avoiding eye contact, resisting changes in routine, or declining to cuddle or have other human contact.

In the USA, one in 150 children are diagnosed with autism. Figures for St. Vincent and the Grenadines are not readily available, and while the ratio here may not be this high, one paediatrician confirmed that there is “quite a bit of autism here”.

For years, many thought that there was a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. The medical community has by and large rejected this claim, although there is at least one case in the United States where a parent was granted compensation from a federal vaccine injury fund. A local paediatrician told Searchlight that perhaps the connection between the disorder and the vaccine was made because the symptoms of autism are usually first noticed around the child’s first birthday, which is when the MMR vaccine is normally given.

All this week, international news networks like CNN and NBC focused on children and young adults with this illness, with parents being urged to learn as much as possible and “take heart”. In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, where the disorder is largely misunderstood, parents need to reach out to each other – for the sake of their children and their own sake.

As with other developmental disorders, having a child with autism disrupts every part of a parent’s life – relationships, physical and emotional health and career aspirations. But there is strength in numbers, and much to learn from other parents facing the same challenge. Forming support groups will also make it easier to start the dialogue in the wider community about autism.

The month of April is also child abuse awareness and prevention month. It is well documented that the incidence of child abuse is high among children with mental or physical disorders. 80 per cent of child abuse is perpetrated by a parent or caregiver. Many times, parental frustration, exhaustion and feelings of helplessness contribute to this. This is yet another reason for parents to reach out to each other and to the available social services and for the social services to seek them out to ensure the welfare of these special children and young people.