Danielle BarfootBy Danielle Barfoot, mom to a boisterous pre-teen and communications manager at Impaq Education, a curriculum provider for home, tutor and school education.

The number of autism cases are increasing worldwide. Yet the symptoms of this conditions are often so vague and subtle that parents and even medical experts find it difficult to pinpoint what exactly is wrong with a child. In addition, there is an enormous lack of education and awareness about autism, which often prevents it from being diagnosed and treated correctly. April is autism awareness month – here is what parents should know.

Autism is a neuro-biological development disorder that is characterised mainly by social, communication and behavioural problems.

On a social level, children with autism don’t know how to relate to others. They seldom play with other children and would rather keep themselves busy with repetitive, often strange behaviour. They have trouble understanding emotions and body language and often behave inappropriately. Approximately 40% of autistic children never communicate using words, or their use of language is odd and repetitive. Many even prefer using gestures rather than words to communicate.

As far as behaviour is concerned, autistic children can become completely obsessed with a topic or object, or they can get caught up in specific rituals. They may perform repetitive actions, such as rocking back and forth, and they can be extremely sensitive to certain sounds, smells, textures and even physical touch.


To make matters even more confusing, the term ‘autism’ is actually an umbrella term that includes five different autism spectrum conditions. These are:

  • Autistic disorder: The classic form of autism, where children mostly live in a world of their own and don’t really respond to the outside world.
  • Asperger syndrome: Sufferers usually have an average or above average intelligence and their language and speech development is excellent, which often means that parents don’t immediately realise that something is wrong.
  • Rett’s syndrome: This rare condition affects mostly girls, who struggle to communicate, make odd hand gestures, have difficulty walking and show poor coordination.
  • Childhood disintegrative disorder: Children develop normally up to the age of two or three, and then start to regress. This rare form of autism is usually associated with epilepsy.
  • Pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified: This includes children who display some but not all of the symptoms of autism, and applies to many cases.

Everything from pollution and diet to the MMR vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella have been investigated as causes of autism, but the actual cause remains unknown. What experts do know is that autism is a lifelong condition for which there is no cure.

Danger signs

If a child displays an unusual combination of the following characteristics or behavioural patterns – especially between the ages of three and five – a specialist should be consulted.

  • No facial expression and/or monotonous tone of voice
  • Slow or no speech development
  • Doesn’t react when spoken to, appears to be deaf
  • Appears to be living in his own little world
  • Makes little or no eye contact
  • Prefers to play on his own
  • Poor imagination, struggles to entertain himself with imaginative play
  • Tuned in to fine details
  • Obsessive, repetitive behaviour, e.g. repeatedly opening and closing doors
  • Odd behaviour, e.g. rocking back and forth
  • Harmful behaviour, e.g. banging his head, biting, scratching
  • Cannot adapt to new routines or rituals
  • Does not like physical touch
  • Very sensitive to sound or sensory triggers such as loud noises or bright lights

The diagnosis

The reality is that a diagnosis of this condition drastically changes a family’s life, and it sets especially high demands on parents’ time and money. In addition, the symptoms of autism are so broad – and each sufferer’s needs so unique – that there is no single solution for everyone.

Thankfully researchers are discovering more about the autistic brain and how it functions daily, and experts – especially doctors, therapists and teachers – are increasingly committed to learning more about the condition.

Continued research means that an autism diagnosis no longer translates into a lifetime of despair. Therapy, the right educational environment and professional support can make a significant difference in the lives of autistic children and their parents.

Click here to find a list of schools and support services for children with autism and their families in Gauteng and here in Kzn.

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