The Mr and Miss Autism Kenya pageant is an event that is helping to bridge the existing gap in awareness and education on autism. By alleviating the stigma associated with the condition, parents will feel more inclined to get their children diagnosed early, thus increasing the chances of successful intervention.
The World Health Organisation estimates that 1 in 160 children worldwide have autism. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behaviour. Although autism can be diagnosed at any age, it is said to be a "developmental disorder" because symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a guide created by the American Psychiatric Association used to diagnose mental disorders, people with ASD have difficulty with communication and interaction with other people, restricted interests and repetitive behaviours and symptoms that inhibit the person's ability to function properly at school and work and in other areas of life. These may vary in intensity for every individual on the spectrum.
Autism awareness, acceptance and inclusion
Although Kenya does not have any official statistics on the prevalence of ASD, the Autism Society of Kenya estimated a prevalence of 4% in 2007. The organisation noted, however, that the rate of autism worldwide seems to be increasing, possibly due to such factors as better diagnosis, greater awareness and an actual increase in prevalence as well.
The issues that need to be addressed for people with ASD are the areas of awareness, acceptance and inclusion. Some of the ways this is happening is through the annual World Autism Awareness Day on 2 April.
"On World Autism Awareness Day, we speak out against discrimination, celebrate the diversity of our global community and strengthen our commitment to the full inclusion and participation of people with autism. Supporting them to achieve their full potential is a vital part of our efforts to uphold the core promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: to leave no one behind," Secretary-General António Guterres was quoted as saying on the United Nations website.
Mr and Miss Autism Kenya pageant
One of the ways in which these gaps in knowledge and acceptance are being filled is through events such as the Light Mr & Miss Autism Kenya Pageant. The pageant organisers, Light of Autism Kenya, established in 2017, created the event specially to raise autism awareness in Kenya.
Organised to mark Autism Awareness Month, the event featured a myriad of autism awareness activities that culminated in the crowning of Peggy Mwaura and Maurice Omondi Opiyo as Miss and Mr Autism Kenya 2019 respectively. Sarah Bosibori Bitange took the crown for Light of Autism Kenya 2019.
According to Face2Face Africa, as part of their duties the trio will take on autism awareness campaigns around Kenya and work with other people with autism on projects that will be beneficial in their society.
Bitange, who has been an advocate for autism and a member of the Kenya Autism Alliance, plans to use her new crown and platform to secure sponsorship that will help educate more people about the condition.
Speaking to the BBC about growing up autistic, she said, "I've been judged a lot of times. I have been bullied in primary school. I have gone through the journey and I have learnt to accept my condition."
The pageant queen was elated at being crowned. "To me this means the world because I am mildly autistic and this is everything... I will tell the world that autism is no cure, autism is a blessing. It has taken a long time for me to accept it but now I understand. Especially since I've won this crown, I feel like I can do anything and everything for autistic people."
Although not all interventions work the same, early diagnosis is a huge part of successful intervention. It is common that diagnosis happens when the child is three to four years old; however, intervention can begin as early as age two or younger.