Sunday 21 July, 2019

T&T's attitude to autism must change, NGO founder says

Trinidad and Tobago is in need of a National Policy and Action Plan on Autism to ensure that persons on the autism spectrum are afforded the same opportunities as all members of society.

That’s the suggestion from Dr Radica Mahase, Founder of advocacy group Support Autism T&T, who says society has a long way to go in achieving autism acceptance and inclusion.

Speaking with LoopTT ahead of World Autism Awareness Day which is observed globally on April 2, Dr Mahase said while there is much to be done to change the perspectives and attitudes of society towards those with autism, a national policy would be a good place to start.

She said this required a number of agencies coming together to formulate a comprehensive plan, with the Ministries of Health, Education, and Social Development and Family Services leading the charge.

“We need them to sit down and say, this is what we need for a child with autism to be able to have all the best resources accessible to them for them to lead a fulfilling life.”

So far, the relatively new organisation which has been in existence for just five years, has not had any formal discussions with Government on drafting such a policy.

Dr Mahase said proper research is vital in order to formulate this policy, as T&T currently lacks the necessary infrastructure and services to cater to the needs of persons on the autism spectrum or persons with disabilties. She said this was particularly glaring in the accommodation for students with autism.

“Once we do this, then we can start putting in place the proper policies and action plans. A National Policy and Action Plan on Autism, proper research needs to be done on those with autism in Trinidad and Tobago, what’s available to them, what’s not available to them, what’s needed in terms of education, social welfare, in terms of health.”

Regarding a shift in society’s perception toward acceptance and inclusion, she said education is key –starting with the younger generation.

This education, she said, should not only be formal as it is something that should be taught at home.

“Inclusion can be a public thing once we have more education out there so we can be more accommodating and more accepting.”

“From the preschool level, we should be teaching children about inclusion. We should be teaching them about accepting others who are different to them from that age. It should be a normal part of the curriculum at schools…so that they grow up aware of it, so that they know that there are others not like them.”

She said the ideal approach would be to ensure that children at an early age interact with children with autism as that is the most powerful form of education.

Finally, the Support Autism T&T founder reminded citizens that autism doesn’t end at the end of April and urged people to make a conscious effort always to demonstrate an attitude of acceptance to make T&T a truly inclusive society.

“Autism is a lifelong condition. But, it does not mean that persons with autism have no hope. Once we give them the treatment they deserve and create those opportunities for them, and give them the proper care and medication that they need they will be able to become independent members of society.”

What is autism?

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterised by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that autism affects 1 in 59 children in the United States.

There is not one autism but many subtypes, most influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Because autism is a spectrum disorder, each person with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges.

The ways in which people with autism learn, think and problem-solve can range from highly skilled to severely challenged. Some people with ASD may require significant support in their daily lives, while others may need less support and, in some cases, live entirely independently.

Several factors may influence the development of autism, and it is often accompanied by sensory sensitivities and medical issues such as gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, seizures or sleep disorders, as well as mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression and attention issues.

Indicators of autism usually appear by age two or three. Some associated development delays can appear even earlier, and often, it can be diagnosed as early as 18 months. Research has proven that early intervention leads to positive outcomes later in life for people with autism.

Information taken from Autism Speaks

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