April is World Autism Month, a time dedicated to creating much attention on autism.
What is autism?
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, is a range of conditions characterised by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviour, speech and non-verbal communication. While different from other people, those with autism have a unique set of strengths and are often highly intelligent.
While no one can confirm the exact cause of autism, it is speculated that it is caused by various combinations of genetic and environmental influences.
What do we need to know about autism?
“Every autistic child is different, as you get minor and severe autism,” explains Esperanza Special Needs School principal, Jennifer Pillay. These differences can be seen in their behaviour and how they react to their surroundings.
“With severe autism, the child lacks socials skills. Bright lights and loud noises frustrate them. They also don’t like change and will occasionally hurt themselves if frustrated.”
With mild autism, the children can socialise with other people and join them in certain activities. “But, you still need to be careful as they can have a meltdown.” A meltdown can be triggered by anything that frustrates an individual with autism.
Klein Spoortjies Pre-Primary principal, Marti Scheepers explained her school opened its doors to autistic children as other schools often didn’t want to work with them. However, she has found them to be brilliant individuals. “They are very regimental, in that they like things to be done in a certain way. If someone doesn’t do it their way, they are upset and will immediately fix it.”
Pillay and van Zyl explain that autistic children don’t like to be touched. However, there are certain children who will hug their teachers and show a certain degree of emotion.
Pillay said autistic people are also highly intelligent. “They can memorise almost anything, just by looking at it once.”
However, as they often lack social skills, it isn’t always picked up. “Some autistic children are non-verbal, while others are selective on who they talk to. Then there are those who talk constantly.” Because some are non-verbal, Pillay said people often didn’t understand autistic child’s behaviour.
“You could be at the mall, see a child that seems normal, but they suddenly have a meltdown. They will fall to the ground and start screaming. Often people will think the child is simply throwing a tantrum. But the child could be autistic, and they could be having a negative response to loud noises, the light or the number of people in the mall,” explained Pillay.
One of the main reasons that Klein Spoortjies opened its doors to autistic children, was to help them develop social skills.
“I thought it would be good to help autistic children socialise with other children. By putting them with other children, they need to talk and grow as people. At the same time, it teaches children how to deal and sympathise with autistic people,” van Zyl said.
Pillay emphasised that it is imperative for people to accept autistic children, showing them love and understanding. “People don’t always know how to accept autistic people, which is why we at Esperanza Special Needs School have a day where people can come and interact with our learners.”
Another benefit of exposing autistic children to mainstream society, is to find an autistic child’s strength. “Every autistic child is brilliant and they are exceptionally good at certain things. If it can be found, they can go study it and better their lives,” van Zyl said.
On April 21, Esperanza Special Needs School will host an open day for World Autism Day and cerebral palsy. This allows people to not only meet the children but learn about autism from the staff.
We all need to take the time to show love and respect to these amazing human beings and the wonderful people who care for them. Show your support for autistic people this April!