A Summary of the State of Autism in Africa

Autism, a developmental disorder that is no respecter of race has greatly affected African children since the beginning of time. However, without the proper medical know-how for early diagnosis and detection, children with Autism in Africa do not recover to a great degree.

As we continue to go further in this article, a better understanding of what autism is, how it is diagnosed, how it can be treated and finally the research on and statistical survey of Autism in Africa will be established.

What is Autism?

Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a development disorder that greatly affects the nervous system thereby, impairing the victim’s ability to interact and communicate.

Autism cuts across a broad range of conditions that is characterized by challenges in speech pattern, non-verbal communication and social skills. People with autism often show signs of restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped interests or patterns of behavior.

How is Autism Diagnosed?

Factors that may influence the development of autism include but are not limited to sensory sensitivities and medical issues such as; gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, seizures and sleep disorders. Other factors are mental health issues such as; anxiety, depression and attention issues.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) on its autism disorder information page establishes that both genetics and the environment play a role in the development of autism.

Signs of autism can be detected in early childhood, between the ages of 2-3 years. However, symptoms may appear much later in some children. Early symptoms of autism are characterized by delay in speech and social development.

The diagnosis for autism involves a host of different screenings, genetic tests, and evaluations.

Children with autism are unable to develop properly and do not reach the developmental milestones of other children within their age bracket. For example, children without autism disorder between the ages of 2-4 enjoy engaging in activities with other kids. They like playing simple games like; ‘throw-and-catch’. However, children with autism within the same age bracket may find it difficult to interact or dislike social interactions completely.

How Can Autism Be Treated?

Currently, there is no cure for autism. However, improvement plans that involve therapies and behavioral inventions have been designed to bring about improvements or remedy specific symptoms. These therapies and treatment plans meet the specific needs of individual children. Treatment options include educational and behavioral interventions, medications, and other forms of therapy.

Symptoms of autism in many children have been shown to decrease with treatment and age. Some children with autism grow to live a normal or almost normal life and are able to work successfully without support and help from people.

Autism in Africa

The prevalence of autism in Africa is difficult to estimate. This is due to the fact that autism research in Africa is neglected as a result of lack of resources and a lack of community support. In Africa, an autism diagnosis is often associated with epilepsy or an intellectual disability. As a result, children with Autism in Africa are often stigmatized and cast out by the society.

Research conducted by Bakare and Munir Showed that healthcare providers in Africa had a low awareness of ASD. Psychiatric health care workers are able to recognize Autism disorder symptoms better than pediatric health care workers. This calls for a move to educate Health care workers and the general public on Autism. Early diagnosis and intervention is important in the treatment of Autism in Africa.

In Africa, when a child shows signs of ASD and other developmental disorders, the people attribute it to the supernatural. They say things like the child is cursed because either parent of the child may have committed great sins. This is evident in a study conducted in Nigeria; a country in the western region of Africa. This survey showed that 40% of nurses attributed the cause of autism to ancestral spirits, enemies and sin. This goes a long way to show that autism in African children is not usually attended to and by medical clinics or health centers. They first seek the help of traditional healers and religious leaders as a way to cure autism and other developmental disorders in African children.

Children with developmental disabilities and Autism in developing countries such as countries in Africa are not detected early thus, they are more likely to end up nonverbal (can’t produce understandable sounds). They are unable to communicate their feelings effectively. Even when the disorder is detected early, most children suffering from the disease in Africa are still unable to recover because they lack access to medical interventions and speech therapy.

Two of the six studies on Autism carried out in some countries in Africa namely; Nigeria, Tunisia, Kenya and Tanzania, and published between 1982 and 2010 reported nonverbal rates of recovery among children with autism in Africa at an average of 61% when compared with the 25% nonverbal recovery rate of children in the US.

With poor diagnosis of the disorder in Africa, it is often mistaken for other developmental disorders and psychiatric impairments because only very little or no distinctions are made between these disorders.

The parents of the children with autism in Africa have no idea what is medically wrong and lack the resources to help their children. These children are seen as abnormal by the society thus, their parents keep them locked away at home, hidden from public eyes.

Today, the awareness for Autism alongside other mental health issues in Africa has improved greatly. Through autism support centers and conferences in Africa, more people have been educated on Autism spectrum disorders. In 2012, heath care experts called for the United Nations General Assembly to host a talk session on mental, neurological, and substance use disorders. In 2013, the UN Secretary-General stated that international attention is essential in addressing the lack of awareness and the stigma associated with autism. The United Nations also urged researchers and organizations to spend more time to investigate autism.

In conclusion, late diagnosis of Autism Syndrome Disorder is commonly observed among African children. It is however important to improve practices that ensure early diagnosis of Autism and intervention in Africa. This includes; increasing the level of awareness in both parents and health care providers and also providing an enabling environment with trained professionals to enable African children recover greatly from the associated symptoms of Autism.