Autism

Updated 10 August 2016

Widespread ignorance about autism in SA rural areas

In small towns, ignorance about autism fuels unfair judgments and questions.

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Charity Modiakgotla gave birth to a beautiful baby girl almost six years ago. Little did Modiakgotla know that her daughter's birth would send the pair down a long road to a diagnosis that would change their lives.

Super-hyperactive child

As her daughter grew into a toddler, Modiakgotla began to take note of the child's behaviour.

"I didn't know what was going on but I could see something was not right," she remembers. "She was a super-hyperactive child, and this was stressing all of us out."

When Modiakgotla's concern grew, she took her young daughter to the doctor who diagnosed the child with autism. For Modiakgotla, the diagnosis came somewhat as a relief, putting years of questions regarding her child's behaviour to rest.

Read: Changing perceptions around autism     

"As a single parent, raising an autistic child can be very stressful," she says. "It is even more stressful when you don't know what is happening and those around you also do not," says Modiakgotla.

The advocacy group Autism South Africa describes autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism as general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. People with ASD may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other people.

Providing coping mechanisms

A lack of general awareness about the conditions not only delays treatment but also fuels misperceptions, according to Autism South Africa Facilitator Vicky Lamb.

"In an ideal world, we would like to see the identification of autism at an earlier age," Lamb said. "The earlier we can identify, the earlier we can begin with intervention and therefore the prognosis for the child is better".

Read: Autistic kids struggle with motor skills

"This does not mean curing the child of autism, as there is no cure, but providing the child with coping mechanisms, and helping them become as independent as possible in life," she added.

However, services for children living with autism remain sparse, particularly in rural areas like those in the Northern Cape from which Modiakgotla hails.

In Modiakgotla's small town, ignorance about autism fuelled judgments and questions about not only what caused the condition but also Modiakgotla parenting.

Armed with information

"The sad story is that people in the society who do not understand autism will always think that your child does not have good manners or that she is not well raised," Modiakgotla said. "It comes from ignorance (and) not knowing about this condition."

Read: Autistic kids find human voice unpleasant

According to the US health non-profit the Mayo Clinic, there is no single known cause for ASD although researchers suspect several different factors may be behind such conditions. Both genetics and environment may play a role.

For Modiakgotla and her daughter, knowing more about the condition has helped not only them but also their family.

"My family now understands what (autism) is about, so they are very helpful," she says. "Being armed with information… (and) educating people about autism helps."

Modiakgotla's daughter now attends a special school that caters for autistic children. – Health-e News.

Read more:

Symptoms of autism

Diagnosing autism   

Risk factors for autism

Health-e News is South Africa’s award-winning dedicated health news service producing news and in-depth analysis for the country’s print and television media.