For The People

World Autism Awareness Day

Understanding the challenges persons with disabilities face.

On the 2nd of April, the world celebrated world autism day under the transition to adulthood theme.  While the world’s attention is focused on stopping COVID-19, the department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities calls on South Africans to take the time to understand and accept people with Autism Spectrum Disorder, in order to foster tolerance and inclusivity.

The Minister in the Presidency for Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane encourages every citizen to empower themselves with knowledge on autism and the diverse support needs of persons with disabilities, particularly considering South Africa’s current national lockdown.

This year’s theme focuses on the significant challenges persons with autism face when transitioning to becoming a full and equal participant in the social, economic and political spheres of society. The theme seeks to reveal how lack of understanding and acceptance by society impedes the inclusion of persons with autism into everyday life. While there are no accurate statistics for South Africa, the World Health Organisation estimates that one in sixty children globally are autistic.

The department wishes to reiterate that persons with disabilities are among those who are vulnerable to the negative impact of COVID-19, especially during the State of Disaster and the national lockdown that we are currently under. Persons with disabilities, the elderly, those in frail care, and children with disabilities remain at the periphery of society and are isolated from activities during the best of times. During the national lockdown these groups face increased isolation through their physical, neurodevelopmental and psychosocial conditions and through information not being made available in accessible formats by media, on websites, etc. because of persons with autism requiring varying levels of support, and many depending on caregivers, many are still at increased risk of contracting COVID-19. Therefore, persons with disabilities and caregivers must take special precautions to minimize risk of transmitting the virus.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a condition related to brain development and has the most noticeable impact in the way a person communicates and socializes with others resulting in miscommunication, misunderstanding and a core difference in processing information. Autism affects the way a person interacts and learns. The condition also includes limited and repetitive patterns of behavior which can cause huge difficulties with change and the need for sameness and routine. People with autism also experience sensory processing differences. Being a spectrum condition levels of support for persons with autism may range from requiring high levels of support, to minimal levels of support. There is a wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms persons may experience, and so there is no ‘one-size fits all’ for support.

Lockdown can also be a challenging time for persons with autism, because of the constant support needs required by some autistic children and adults. During the lockdown period, persons with autism can experience heightened levels of frustration and anxiety because of a break in routine, and a lack of resources and engagement.

Because of their communication challenges, persons with autism are also considered a vulnerable group when it comes to GBV, because they may not report incidents of abuse, or children with autism may not understand they are being abused or that they need to signal that something is wrong. Hence, the department encourages South Africans to learn more about autism, and to understand the challenges and to learn how to provide reliable means of communication through alternative augmentative communication to this very vulnerable sector of society.

To ensure that persons with disabilities receive accessible information during this critical time, the Gender Based Violence Command Centre (GBVCC) (0800 428 428) has a Skype Line (add “Helpme GBV” to your Skype contacts) and “Please Call Me” facility: *120*7867#. An SMS Based Line is also available on 31531.

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