If you suspect that your child may have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), then it is best you get them checked as early as possible, says a KwaZulu-Natal mother. Gugu Mjadu from Empangeni says her son was three when he was first diagnosed with autism. Early detection has helped her better understand the developmental disorder.
April marks World Autism Awareness month, aimed at creating awareness and educating society about autism.
According to the Autism Research Institute, ASD is a developmental disorder with symptoms that appear within the first three years of life.
The word “spectrum” indicates that autism appears in different forms with varying levels of severity. That means that everyone with autism experiences their own unique strengths, symptoms, and challenges. ASD includes autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) and Asperger syndrome.
Seeing the signs
Due to lack of awareness, autistic children are often labelled as being naughty or spoiled. This is not the case, says Mjadu.
She tells Health For Mzansi that some of the early autism signs he displayed, included playing alone, being very picky, sensitivity to light and sound, screaming, lack of speech, hiding in corners, climbing and being very hyperactive.
“His development was not of a normal child and the way he behaved, I was assisted at the clinic where they told me that my son is autistic, and he was given Risperdal and I monitor the doses.”
‘It takes love and understanding’
According to a study published by the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders in 2020, parents of children with autism were facing especially high degrees of stress in the Covid-19 pandemic. This mostly due to isolation, the disruption of children’s therapy and care and worries about money as well as the risk of illness for their children and themselves.
Mjadu says that one of the biggest challenges of raising an autistic child is that you are always tired as the parent, and no one really understands your child.
Mjadu encourages other parents with autistic children to understand that autism is not a disability, to learn to understand their child and to give them love. “Always show that you love them, always stay calm towards them, but be strict,” she advises.
Her biggest support system is her family.
Durban-based occupational therapist Tamaryn Hunter says support to parents is very important so that they do not feel that they are on this journey alone.
“Support is important and beneficial because parents often feel very alone in their journeys, especially when their child is newly diagnosed,” says Hunter. “It is helpful for them to know that they are not alone and to be able to get help or advice from parents who may have experienced some of the same challenges that they have experienced.”
During the height of the pandemic, Hunter and her colleagues started a free online support group for parents with children with autism. “We knew that they wouldn’t be able to access services during the lockdown and so we wanted them to at least feel that they had some support.”
She says the aim of the support group was to provide parents with access to good quality information about autism.
“There is a huge amount of misinformation around autism, so we wanted parents to access to information and access to other parents who are in the same situation as them. We had such a good response and we decided to keep the online group running.
“We have a meeting once a month on Zoom for 1 – 2 hours and we provide either webinars where parents can get information from various experts like occupational therapists, speech therapists, educational psychologists, neurodevelopmental paediatricians, and counsellors; or we have open meetings where parents can ask questions and chat to each other about their daily challenges.”
Learn more about autism here.