Amma, a pretty 12-year-old girl is plump, hairy and very active. Dressed in a white trouser and a floral satin blouse, she looks normal in this appearance. Looking around, it was obvious there were no mosquitoes in the room as it was daytime and the environment cosy, but she was tapping every part of her body like she was being bitten by mosquitoes. Why is she tapping her body all over? A curious mind would ask. Amma is manifesting one of the signs of autism. From the way she looked, it was obvious she was not a Nigerian. Amma has a silky hair-long and black like that of an Indian lady and was fair in complexion like Amma.
She understands English but does not speak it fluently. Her mother narrated how she knew that her daughter was autistic. “I did not know that autism exists. When she was three to four years old, she did not speak. She could not communicate with other people. Then I was working, but when I discovered this, I stopped working so I could give her much time. While I was teaching her, she started improving. When she was in primary 3, I noticed she was not coping like other children; she was not socializing with and communicating with people. Now, she is 12 years old. I noticed that when she is going to school, she is better. Because it is like routine, because when she is on holiday, it is like going back to the same things again. They always need a 24-hour attention,” she explains.
She says the autistic daughter is the first among three children. Amma has every feature of an adolescent girl.
According to her mother, Amma has not started menstruating, but has started developing breast and other features that lead to a woman’s maturity.
The mother wept over her daughter’s condition as she broke down in tears. She sobbed for four minutes and at the end muttered this wish, “If she can at least live a normal life.” Amma’s mum refused to disclose her name as she says she was a wife of a diplomat.
Now, imagine this: your child is 12 years but cannot communicate with you effectively, do routine chores without needing assistance, such as eating, bathing, brushing etc. This is the plight of autistic children.
Dr. Toju Chike-Obi is the consultant paediatrician, Tabitha Women’s Health Centre, Maitama, Abuja. She said “Autism is a brain disorder of children. It is usually noticed between the ages of two and three years. It is the disorder that has no known cause. The cause is thought to be due to a couple of factors, which means there is a sort of a brain defect that we have not narrowed down on yet, which is also affected by genetic pre-disposition to this defect as well as an environmental impact on that genetic pre-disposition. This means there is a genetic problem, then something in the environment during the child’s development impacts the child’s basic genetic make-up that causes autism.”
“The three hallmarks of autism are abnormal communication often in speech and language. They communicate abnormally. The second is abnormal social interaction. They cannot relate socially with people in their environment. The third is that they have abnormal behaviours. So there are certain things you look at to help you make a diagnosis.”
In the vent a child is diagnosed with autism, Chike-Obi says “the interventions fall into the categories of the three hallmarks of autism. The first is communication-speech and language development. Often, these children’s speech is delayed. Even those who are not delayed are hyper communicative. So, you can do a speech and language evaluation. Access where the child is and begin to do the necessary intervention usually in the form of speech therapy.”
The second area is in social interaction. “You put the child in therapy where you are helping them with their social interaction.”
Chike-obi says there is no no medical therapeutic intervention in terms of pharmacology.
In Nigeria and Africa, many people attribute autism to witchcraft, but Chike-Obi disagrees, saying, “we don’t have witchcraft in the US, yet we have four to six in 1,000 having autism of which boys are more likely than girls. It is not witchcraft and don’t believe that.”
Latest reports released by the end of March this year by the Centre for Disease Control in the US says one in 88 children have autism. In Nigeria, however, the Minister of Health Professor Onyebuchi Chukwu says the number of Nigerians affected by autism is unknown but is certain to be higher than thought because of what he calls “misdiagnosis”.
Chike-Obi says a patient’s growth depends on the level of the disease. “Again, if they are mildly autistic, they can get by with help. They can hold down simple jobs behind the scene. They can be filing clerks, librarians and such things.”
For Ronke Katagum, Director/Proprietor of The Zamarr Institute, Abuja, a school for children with special needs such as autism, down-syndrome, speech defects, autism is treatable in the sense that the child’s condition can be managed. “Autism is not curable, but it can go away in the sense that you can teach the child social skills to a certain degree that he/she can smile appropriately, laugh appropriately, etc.”