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PE-Express
Early intervention vital for autistic children

“WHILE April is Autism Awareness Month, it provides an opportunity to highlight the importance of support for research, early intervention, timely diagnosis and appropriate treatment.”

This, according to Zeidie-Lee Muller, centre manager of Victory Kids, a non-profit, public benefit organisation in Newton Park that supports early intervention centres for children with special needs.

Imagine being told that your child would never be able to walk, talk or live independently – this is the sad reality that thousands of parents of children with the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) face every day.

According to research, ASD is a brain disorder that too often results in a lifetime of impaired thinking, feeling and social functioning. The disorder, which becomes apparent generally by the age of three, typically affects a child’s ability to communicate, form relationships and respond appropriately to the external world.

Recent statistics from the Centre for Diseases Control suggest that the numbers of ASD cases are on the rise with one in 68 children being diagnosed, while in South Africa it is believed that a child with ASD is born every 45 minutes.

According to Muller, it is important to learn the early signs of autism and become familiar with the milestones a child should be reaching.

“There are many warning signs or red flags but the signs and symptoms of autism vary widely, as do its effects.

“Some have only mild impairments, while others have more obstacles to overcome,” Muller said.

She described how every child on the autism spectrum had problems, at least to some degree, in the following areas: communicating verbally and non-verbally, relating to others and the world around them and thinking and behaving flexibly.

“When it comes to autism, catching it early makes a huge difference as treatment and therapy can reduce the disorder’s effects and help a child learn, grow and thrive,” Muller said.

Speaking to Express, parents Clinton and Algene van Boomen said life wouldn’t be the same without their son, now four-years-old, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of two.

“He has brought so much love and happiness into our lives. It’s important to take action as soon as you notice that there is something wrong.

“When we noticed the signs, we started doing research and decided to seek medical advice,” Algene said.

Another parent, Shakira Hendricks, said the main thing people needed to realise was that autism was not like it is in the movies.

“When you google autism there’s a lot of information, but it’s nothing like what we actually go through at home,” Hendricks said.

The 37-year-old mother, who has two older children, described how the first two years following her son’s diagnosis were the hardest.

“We were always covered in bruises. Your child wants to hurt you – they want to bite, kick and pinch you, and you have to try and stop them from doing that,” Hendricks added.

Hendricks said, “What I love about my older children, is that they are so open with the little one. He’ll pinch them and they’ll say ‘it’s fine mommy he’s just having a bad day’.

“On days when I need silence they to try and calm their younger bother down. I’m truly blessed,” she said.

Currently enrolled at Victory Kids, the two boys are said to have made amazing progress.

“We can now take our son to the mall which was something that used to overwhelm him. He couldn’t stand the bright lights and noise. I have also stopped telling everyone that he is autistic because I’ve realised that if we don’t say it, people don’t even notice. It’s the labelling that makes people look at him differently,” Algene said.

Hendricks said people need to understand that it’s okay to have an autistic child. “Yes, he looks like he’s four, but he is seven and I don’t care what people say.”

Victory Kids was established in 2005 by Janine Thetard after moving to Port Elizabeth with her son, Joshua, who had severe epilepsy and was diagnosed with autism.

Following her realisation that there was no facility to offer her son the applied behaviour analysis therapy he had been receiving, Thetard was prompted to develop and implement a similar programme.

Sadly, in October of 2010, Joshua passed away at the age of 12.

The centre is now run by Muller, together with a team of 14 dedicated teachers who come from psychology and teaching backgrounds.

“We are now planning on building a new school because we can no longer enrol learners as our centre is now full to its capacity. It pains me to have to send away parents,” Muller said.

The centre will be hosting their third annual Autism Awareness Walk under the theme, Light It Up Blue for Autism, from Happy Valley to Something Good and back on Saturday from 09:00.

“After the walk, we would love to have a family picnic and games for the kids. Everyone is invited; just come dressed in blue and support all our young warriors,” Muller said.

The following “red flags” may indicate that a child is at risk for an autism spectrum disorder:

Social skills:

. Unable to follow instructions.

. Battles to maintain eye contact and does not respond to a smile.

. Appears to be in their own world.

. Delayed speech.

. Responds to some sounds, not necessarily human voices.

Behaviour:

. Battles with changes in routines.

. Self-injuring behaviour.

. Emotional outbursts, with no apparent reason.

. Attached to certain objects.

. Repetitive/ritualistic behaviour.

Senses:

. Reacts strongly to some sounds.

. Does not look at objects directly.

. Does not feel pain or insensitive to extreme temperatures.

. Fussy eater.

. Walks on tip toes.

. Watches certain patterns or feels certain textures.

Play and imagination:

. Only plays with certain toys, often inappropriately.

. Often does not play with others.

. Plays in a limited way.

. No pretend play.

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