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Stabroek News

Autism in need of urgent focus
published: Sunday | October 5, 2008

Maia Chung-Smith, Contributor

THE NUMBER of Jamaicans living with autism is on the rise. Leading professor in the field in Jamaica, Dr Maureen Samms-Vaughn, confirmed two years ago that the numbers had increased from approximately two diagnoses per year in the 1970s to 40 per year in 2006. She restated this in a recent television interview.

Autism strikes any social group in Jamaica, and this is no different globally. Specialists at work on the disorder here and overseas admit autism is a neurological disorder and has three main characteristics: repetitive behaviours, problems verbalising and a lack of wanting to socialise. These have become scarily pervasive here locally.

There seems to be no consensus in the medical world globally as to what causes the disorder and what will stop it. I believe, as the mother of an autist, we should seize the solutions we know; those of treatment and inclusionary teachings to help these members of our society function and aid them in reaping the benefits, which will no doubt spill over to us.

The Maia Chung Autism and Disabilities Foundation needs funding to mount campaigns and intervention programmes that are ongoing. It is seeking to stir the development of education programmes in schools to create tolerance. The aim is also to open the eyes of the 'normal-curve' youth and future working populace of Jamaica to the notion that jobs within this sector - such as special educators, physicians specialising in diagnostics and care - are not just lucrative ways to make a living, but have the dual benefit of solving a societal problem which now burdens our nation and has the potential to severely stunt our development.

The effort is also to seek to catalyse action among the relevant government agencies, NGOs and donor agencies towards progressive development, to ensure that the increasing populace of autistic, as well as brilliant youngsters who are physically challenged, are educated and become effective human resources assisting with national development. This has been proven repeatedly here and overseas as very possible.

Solutions need to take the form of workable and non-bureaucratic strategies that need to be honed to help these individuals overcome and competently handle what empirically has proven to be a very difficult situation.

Consistency in performance

In one-and-a-half decades in this country there has been one long-serving institution that has cited and proven itself and its offerings as a school for students affected by autism primarily, and that is the Promise Learning Centre situated on 1A North Avenue in Kingston. The school has been in operation for 15 years and shows its consistency in performance, helping autistic youngsters develop towards functioning levels.

The project 'Save the Specials' - authored and conceptualised by The Maia Chung Autism and Disabilities Foundation on behalf of the Promise Learning Centre - seeks to resource this one model that empirically has shown high levels of success over one-and-a-half decades in the treatment of autism and other learning disabilities. The aim is to try to spur action by government and the private citizenry to help replicate these strategies across the nation, where there is a significant absence of specialised treatments for autists now living across the country.

The imperative of autism becomes everybody's business when scientists globally are still not certain what the cause is. This means that autism can strike in any Jamaican family of any ethnicity, of any income level, without any warning or safeguard. Global research by the World Health Organisation states that boys are nearly four times more likely to have a parent-reported autism diagnosis than girls.

With studies by Professor Samms-Vaughn and her team revealing that 20 years ago autism diagnoses in Jamaica were roughly two yearly, fast-forward to 2006, when it was 40 per year. Professor Samms-Vaughn has confirmed that what is happening globally is reflective of what is happening here in our nation. With more young children facing this issue, the current single school that focuses on autism, mainly that of its treatment and rehabilitation, is woefully inadequate and overpacked. It is now seeking alternative facilities as Jamaicans journey from across the country to have their children enrolled for some help.

Minister of Education Andrew Holness has admitted that the issue of autism and its treatment would seem to need a separate school, that is, one that doesn't have autism education falling in line with other learning disabilities.

While other special-education schools have inclusionary programmes which speak to autism, research has indicated that autism being such an unknown disorder, with such widespread manifestations and individualised treatment approaches despite the commonality of the symptoms, autists need their own schools.

The urgency for action now to fund specialist facilities to train and educate autists, as well as more trained specialists to help the autists of our land self-actualise, took on grim proportions as this author has evidence that these individuals are being killed at ages such as six and nine here in Jamaica. The murders are being committed by parents who look at a child with no obvious physical impairment and are not discerning enough to understand that if your doctor has told you something is wrong and the body doesn't display it, maybe it is inside.

Two murders in this group occurred early this year and late last year. The two affected boys were beaten to death by parents who thought because the children were unable to respond, they were rude.

The foundation's objectives are: Channelling funding in the area of special-education upgrades to existing facilities at the Promise Learning Centre catering to education, skills training and general actualisation of the potential of Jamaica's special children.

Rationale for seeking private funding: Jamaica's current traditional education system is in crisis, dealing with issues of criminality among students and poor education results. This inevitably sees all, if not most resources being channelled towards trying to do damage control in the more traditional areas, resulting in inadequate funds and other resource requisites to treat with those who are affected by disabilities.

Valid contributors

We need autists and all disabled persons whose brains are worthy, to function at their optimum level, in the same fashion we need people without challenges to function, so they can be as little of a burden, and in fact, valid contributors to our growth. Imagine an autist under the right treatment becoming the equivalent of a contemporary Isaac Newton who himself, upon research, displayed characteristic traits of autism.

There has to be commitment by all of us to create more usable human resources no matter what grouping into which they fall. Build separate schools, source more professionals who can treat with the issue and establish a government policy paper on a way forward for a situation that has dire consequences if not addressed.

Maia Chung-Smith is the managing director of The Maia Chung Autism and Disabilities Foundation launched April 2008 during Global Autism Awareness Month.

Our needs are:

  • We need Government intervention to replicate The Promise Learning Centre.

  • There is no counselling centre devoted to parents of autists - it is very difficult to treat with a child with autism.

  • Relocation of The Promise Learning Centre to a bigger space to accommodate the increasing student population.

  • Increased funding to pay for the correct therapies and procedures (i.e. trained staff such as therapists, doctors, researchers to introduce new techniques being developed each day, in the fight against autism) necessary to detect and treat autism.

  • Funds to pay for scholarships to encourage the interest in training for positions that treat with the autism disorder to provide a higher quantity of specialists to cater to the Jamaican need.

  • Donations to fund education programmes and travelling clinics to have specialists aid in treatment on regular basis.

  • Donations to fund the bringing in of researchers to give seminars in the latest information to the staff of promise in techniques as they are developed.

    What is autism?

    Autism is a neurological disorder and has three main characteristics- repetitive behaviours, problems verbalising and a lack of wanting to socialise.

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