Marie Claire Uwera learnt that her toddler was born with autism when she was two years old, and now, she turns four.
She got concerned when she realised that her baby was not doing what other children of the same age do.
“She didn’t want to play with other children; she used to play alone, in a corner. I asked doctors and they advised me to take her to the hospital for diagnosis. I then learnt she had autism,” she says.
At that age, Uwera says, she didn’t know how to respond when someone called her, and she wouldn’t react to communication of any kind.
Currently, she lives at Autism Rwanda, an organisation that takes care of autistic children, to receive help from professionals and the improvement is noticeable, Uwera says.
“My child has learnt many things, especially concerning communication and socialising. However, it’s a process and it requires a lot of money as the centres that receive them are very few and in normal schools, educators are not trained to handle such children,” she says.
If infants are diagnosed with autism and they start treatment before their first birthday, they experience significant improvement, compared to when they start late, experts say.
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a range of conditions characterised by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviour, speech and non-verbal communication, as well as unique strengths and differences.
Most of the time, children are diagnosed with autism when they are about three or four years old. However, due to the limited awareness towards the disease, and social mindset, children are not treated as they should, which promotes autism development, says Dr Anna Bisouma, a psychiatric.
In Africa, these children are mistreated; this involves locking them up in rooms and never going out; some are even labelled cursed, Dr Bisouma says.
However, even those diagnosed late can be put under treatment, she says.
“It requires measuring what the child is capable of doing, and how their development is, then finding ways to help with the delay in growing,” she says.
Dominique Janin Duc, a French psychologist, says autism is a mental disorder and its cause is not exactly known.
It is a development disorder in which a child suffering from it has a brain that doesn’t operate normally, she says.
Mostly, autism symptoms in young babies consist of avoiding eye contact and they remain passive, they don’t react, she says.
“Seeing these signs, parents should be concerned about their children’s mental health and take them to the hospital,” she says.
If diagnosis is done early, treatment is also done early and the development of autism which consists of communication difficulties, social inabilities, restricted interests, like not showing any interest in family members, can be limited, she advises.
TAKING CARE OF THEM
Rosine Kamagaju, the founder of Autism Rwanda, says it’s not an easy job as it requires more than financial means; it demands patience, love and care in order to help them make progress.
“We know how to take care of them, we are aware of what they need. Normal schools don’t have trained staff for such children and so it becomes difficult for them. We receive children at the age of two and we do not just teach them reading and writing, but also how to live in society. We teach them how to behave and how to socialise with others,” she says.
Janin Duc says the way parents socialise with their autistic children plays a key role in helping them get better. They should not try to make them be like other children, she advises.
“First, it is important to learn to accept them the way they are, and then create a strong relationship with them. It requires patience, kindness, and knowing what they are interested in,” she says.
Dr Chrysostome Habimana says children with autism live in their own world and have bizarre movement, most of the time, they repeat their actions.
The earlier the treatment, the greater the chances of stopping autism development, he says.
“It is better to visit a paediatrician and psychologist in case parents detect abnormal behaviour, or delays in growing, to be able to help them with diagnosis and treatment,” he says.
In some countries, autistic children are helped to develop their talent and they earn an income, he says. These children are cared for in their respective centres, and are taught and trained based on their talent. Then they are given jobs; social security boards assist these centres and help them live normal lives, he adds.
Dr Bisouma says a clear programme for autism diagnosis in new-born babies should be established in Rwanda and Africa at large.
“It’s time to conduct a strong campaign to tell our communities to stop hiding and mistreating autistic children,” she says.