South Africa: Citizens Called to Understand Plight of Those With Autism

As South Africa marks day 7 of the COVID-19 lockdown, Minister in the Presidency Maite Nkoana-Mashabane has called on citizens to observe and support people with Autism.

This as today the world marks World Autism Day under the theme "The Transition to Adulthood".

"While the world's attention is focussed on stopping COVID-19, the department calls on all South Africans to take the time to understand and accept people with Autism Spectrum Disorder, in order to foster tolerance and inclusivity," said the Minister on Thursday.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a condition related to brain development and has the most noticeable impact in the way a person communicates and socialises with others resulting in mis-communication, misunderstanding and a core difference in processing information.

Nkoana-Mashabane encouraged citizens to empower themselves with knowledge on autism and the diverse support needs of persons with disabilities, particularly in light of South Africa's current national lockdown.

This as the country is on day 7 of a national lockdown aimed at stopping the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19).

Effect on COVID-19 lockdown

The Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities added that in the time of a lockdown, vulnerable groups face increased isolation through their physical, neuro-developmental and psycho-social conditions.

"The department wishes to reiterate that persons with disabilities are among those who are particularly 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 continue to remain at the periphery of society and are isolated from activities during the best of times," she said.

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 a lack of understanding and acceptance by society in general, 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.

"Furthermore, due to persons with autism requiring varying levels of support, and many dependent on caregivers, many are still at increased risk of contracting COVID-19. Therefore, persons with disabilities and caregivers must take special precautions to minimise risk of transmitting the virus," said Nkoana-Mashabane.

During the lockdown period, persons with autism can experience heightened levels of frustration and anxiety due to a break in routine, and a lack of resources and appropriate engagement.

Protecting the vulnerable

Due to their communication challenges, persons with autism are also considered a vulnerable group when it comes to gender-based violence. This as they may not be able to report incidents of abuse. In addition, children with autism may not understand that they are being abused or that they need to signal that something is wrong.

Autism affects the way a person interacts and learns. The condition also includes limited and repetitive patterns of behaviour which can result in 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.

"The department encourages all South Africans to continue to combat stereotypes, prejudices and harmful practises that hurt in any way, persons with disabilities and prevent their participation in all spheres of life," said Nkoana-Mashabane.

To ensure that persons with disabilities receive accessible information during this critical time, the Gender Based Violence Command Centre (GBVCC) which can be reached on 0800 428 428, also has a Skype Line (add "Helpme GBV" to your Skype contacts).

A "Please Call Me" facility is also available on *120*7867# while an SMS Based Line is also available on 31531.

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