Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people communicate, behave and interact with others. There’s no single cause for it, and symptoms can be very mild or very severe.
With the prevalence of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in South Africa estimated to be 0.08% of the population, the increase of 76% between 2012 and 2016 indicated in the Western Cape raises a social justice concern.
Mainstream schools catered for 10% of children with ASD, and 89% were in special schools. Only 17% of these children attended rural schools; however, nearly half (43%) of South African children lived in rural households in 2018. ASD is under-reported and under-ascertained, and the prediction was made that 169 286 children under the age of 15 could be diagnosed with ASD.
Human Rights Day was commemorated in South Africa recently – but are disability issues being side-lined by society? Is there social justice for children with ASD in South Africa? Are human rights overshadowing the violence against the perceived abilities of people with disabilities? Most stakeholders working with and collaborating with people with disabilities will shout a resounding “yes”.
A documentary currently being screened on Netflix, The Speed Cubers – about Rubik cube-solving champions – reminds us that children with ASD have a spectrum of possibilities and abilities. Autistic teen Max Park became a “speed cuber” with the support of his parents and fellow Rubik cube champ Felix Zemdegs. This shows that support from society can turn the life of a person with ASD around.
Enough evidence indicates the value of early intervention for the child and parents or caregivers. Parents experience increased levels of anxiety because their child does not fit into the mould of society, which exacerbates their feelings of incompetence. So how do we create a just society for children with ASD and their families?
Inclusion and acceptance are paramount. Society should ensure that every person has the same opportunities to participate in every aspect of life to the best of their abilities and desires. Inclusion reduces stigma and allows for social learning and an understanding of the relationship between the way people function and how they participate in society. This will lead to an increase in social acceptance. Acceptance calls for a positive attitude towards impairment and, therefore, parity of participation for all.