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Improving autism management in Nigeria

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Chief Executive Officer and Director of Advanced Behavior & Education / ABE International Clinic & Consultancy Limited, Dr. Loretta Burns

Every year, thousands of children are born with autism in Nigeria. These children with autism are not diagnosed and managed on time; hence their family and society see them as burden.

Due to the inability of the parents and most health workers to detect children with autism early, they (children) suffer great health loss; some are even denied their right to basic needs of man.

Some are isolated by their families due to the shame of having a child with intellectual/cognitive disability, while some suffer from the menace of cultural beliefs, superstitions and myths as they are being called witches, imbeciles, fools as well as neglect and stigmatisation among others.

Most times some are killed by their families, to avoid the embarrassment or shame of having such children.

According to the World Health Organization, one in 160 children live with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) worldwide.

Further statistics shows that 135 million established cases of autism in the world, with, more than one million children and teenagers suffering from the condition in Nigeria.

Although, there are no specific statistics in Nigeria because the condition is hardly diagnosed and rarely understood, sufferers of this condition lack medical and psycho-social help.

Autism Spectrum is a disorder that affects the brain’s early development of social and communication skills. It is characterised by complex behavioural phenotype and deficits in both social and cognitive functions and it is a life-long condition that affects children and adults alike.

Despite the rising number of sufferers, autism is one of the most ignored health issues in the country, as there is low awareness to early diagnosis and management of the cognitive disorder in Nigeria.

To help address the growing concerns in the diagnosis and management of children with autism in Nigeria, the Chief Executive Officer and Director of Advanced Behavior & Education / ABE International Clinic & Consultancy Limited, Dr. Loretta Burns, has said there is need for intense intervention on the part of the families and stakeholders in helping sufferers come out of their mental disability state, through the necessary and relevant support

Burns who spoke to The Guardian said stigmatisation of children with autism and other intellectual disorders is a big challenge because Nigerians, while placing value on culture, label these children with a spiritual mindset, adding that not being able to identify early what the disorders are and being able to support families to train individuals are also contributing factors to the prevalence of the disabilities.

She said: “When you look at autism, it is a neurological disorder that impacts an individual social and communication skills, meaning there is an extreme, long spectrum, so some people were born and were able to speak and by the age of two they lose that speech.

“And then after that age of two we are trying to teach them how to speak again. We have cases where the person is able to speak but the communication is not clear, they don’t understand you, they don’t look at you, people assume they don’t see or hear them, but they can hear you, so it is tapping into the mind and shaping it.”

Burns said while most people, especially couples blame each other for having autistic children, the intellectual/cognitive disorder is neither transmittable because it is not a disease, adding that “ there are two main factors which are generational and environmental”, which makes it inheritable from parents who have the trace in their gene.

“Questions have being asked if it could be something that the mother ate or drank, but it really is not, it is not like the foetal alcohol syndrome, so it is really environmental or generational.

“People ask if there is a cure, it is not so much a cure by giving you medicine, but there is cure by always strategising by training, teaching and shaping and that we begin to put certain behaviours and replace it with new ones that we want.”

Burns said the ABE Clinics is committed to improving the lives of individuals with Autism, Intellectual Disabilities (ID), behavior challenges and cognitive disorders – despite location or situation.

She said the need to give back to Nigeria was born out of helping families cut coat of seeking treatment abroad.

“ABE Clinics has modeled an Intake System linked to consultation and treatment services to offer diagnostic assessments, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) consultation and treatment services, developmental screening, functional behavior assessments, educational assessments/services, parent/family/school training with consultations & more.

ABE uniquely provides related developmental services for clients specifically designed to deliver ease, consistency, and a more effective transition for individual client growth and development.

“ABE’s mission and vision is to facilitate the interactions and learning necessary for all individuals to successfully become contributing members of society, while believing in opportunity – an opportunity to face, meet and overcome challenges head-on, whilst exceeding expectations with talent, strength, support, and perseverance regardless of challenge, difficulty or disability,” she said.

She, however, urged the government to put in place policies and interventions as well as make autism a national health issues to help drive awareness and provide solutions to families and people with the disorders.

On the prevalence of autism in Nigeria, Burns noted that the rate is increasing every year, “I will say autism is increasing here in Nigeria because there is more prevalence, so it doesn’t mean it was not there before, it means that globally, there is prevalence of autism and Nigeria like any other country have come to term that autism is an epidemic but the biggest piece is to step in now to make these changes before we lose a lot of lives in their sense of not being able to support families, or support individuals and there is nothing we can do about it, so this is making a change early, really building an intervention, training and education around it and also make a change with mental health support for family members, for siblings and so on.”

She said while studies have shown that pollution is a major cause of autism, there are no theories to prove it, adding that in diagnosing the disorder. “We have instruments, tools testing, we test for various things from their social aspect to academic and to psychological, so we have various tests we conduct to be able to diagnose autism or intellectual disabilities sooner,” Burns said.

Pointing out the symptoms to look out for to help in early detection, Burns said: “For autism the symptoms are limited eye contact, stemming, which could be flapping of arms, tantrum behaviours, limited speech and another spectrum of autism disorder in those that are extremely intelligent but find it difficult to converse with people. This is also something to be aware of because they also may have life skill needs not necessarily educational needs, so their needs could be different.”

Burns noted that there is much to be done in helping children with autism live a normal life as well as early detection and management.

“I think really caring for them is building independence, teaching them how they can be the child, if your child has a disorder or some kind of symptom – l think the biggest thing is to build that parent awareness also so that we can all shape together.

“Though, it is not a cure for autism, but it is train sooner and earlier, push for independence and generalisation of skills, so we would develop goals and we want them to meet those goals, then we will continue doing that until people are contributing members of the society and we can find out the things they enjoy so we can tap into that skill.”

She continued: “It is a priority because even if you won’t do it for the child that has autism, do it for their families because that comes back into their mental health concerns, families, parents are stressed out, tired and frustrated, angry, upset that they don’t have to deal with it and it leads to many other things, like the depression, anxiety, so it is something that should be placed at the fore front and we can make a change now.”


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