Thursday, April 18, 2024
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Increasing Autism cases are concerns in the Diaspora

By Abdi Mohamud

Historically, the medical condition called autism was rare or unknown to the pastoral Somali society. Despite the limited diet and absence of a modern healthcare system, children were generally born healthy and grew healthy before urbanization. Families never struggled with caring for children handicapped by autism. If any, they were unnoticeable and insignificant numbers that warranted no concern in society. Similarly, Somali communities that established urban centres in the early and mid-20th century did not face any autism problems.

Unlike the pastoralists whose diet was mainly meat and milk, the urban settlers enjoyed wider and more varied food options. Grains such as rice, beans, vegetables, meat, and confectioneries became available and affordable. Pasta, bread, and other food items were also introduced to the society. These changes in lifestyle and food consumption did not cause unknown health concerns in early urban settlers in our country. I do not remember seeing autistic children in the 1970s and 1980s during my childhood and formative years of manhood. In those days, family size was usually large. It was not uncommon to see families with eight, nine, or ten children. Fortunately, the autism problem was unknown to large families of which many were urban poor.

Unfortunately, things have changed drastically in recent years. Autism is becoming prevalent in our diaspora communities. Authorities in the U.S., U.K., and Sweden among other nations have pointed out that the number of autistic children of Somali descent is high. American researchers suspect that gut bacteria is a causal factor. Preservatives, genetically-modified processing, as well as antibiotics in both healthcare and food production are believed to contribute to this medical problem. They also believe that Somali parents seek professional assistance very late. By that time the child’s situation may be at a critical stage.

1 in 32 Somali children are autistic compared to 1 in 36 white children. These two social groups have the highest number of autistic children according to the research conducted by the Americans. Sweden and UK researchers also confirmed the prevalence of autism in immigrant Somali communities in those countries. But the researchers have concluded the cause is unknown yet, so further research needs to be done.

It is very challenging to have a child requiring around-the-clock care. However, parents always remain devoted and resilient. They provide their children with the best care they can and also seek professional support and guidance. Some of the parents share their experiences about the progress their children make, as well as resources they utilize, and strategies they employ to cope with challenges they encounter.

M. M. Dhoore is a Somali father with an autistic child. He usually shares the activities of his child and the progress he achieves on X. Dhoore’s support for his son and his openness with the wider Somali public are worthy of celebration and acknowledgment. Dhoore’s spirit, enthusiasm, and determination are exemplary. Other parents must emulate him and talk about the delight, challenges, and perhaps occasional frustrations they experience. We can all benefit when we share information and strategies applied and proven to work.

 Parents should talk openly about this issue to minimize the stigma associated with it. Some parents expressed disappointment at the views held by others who assume bad parenting is responsible for the difficulties autistic children have. Autism is no one’s fault. It is not a self-inflicted wound resulting from bad personal behaviour such as drug use and alcohol consumption. So I encourage Somali parents with autistic children to be open and share their experiences to benefit others.

Therapy and management

Doctors have been unable so far to give a definitive answer to what contributes to the existence of autism ailments in some children. It is not known what exactly causes this ailment. But doctors believe that there are some genetic and environmental factors, as well as lifestyle choices that might be responsible for its prevalence. It is worth noting that doctors have succeeded in figuring out the existence of autism spectrum disorder. There are low-functioning and high-functioning autism.

The severity of an autistic child’s situation determines what category he/she may fall in. In the former, the child is usually dependent on others for care. In the latter or the high-functioning autism, the child can function independently or with minimal assistance from others. A child diagnosed with low-functioning autism requires care from others all the time. Fortunately, some treatments can bring some relief to families and their autistic children. Doctors say treatment is more beneficial and effective if the child starts receiving it at a very early age. They recommend treatment to start before the child turns three.

Autistic children are unable to understand social cues or make sense of others’ interactions with them. They may remain clueless about your body language or the words you utter. They can also easily get angry, frustrated, and react violently. They may cry, throw things, bite you, or cause some other problems. So, parents/caregivers need to pay attention to what triggers them to behave in certain ways. There are sensory things such as noises, lights, and crowds that bother, upset, and disturb autistic children. Parents should be aware of things their autistic children find irritating or unpleasant. So it is desirable to eliminate or minimize things that cause their meltdown and temper tantrums. Parents should also know things that comfort their children. Toys, changing the environment, hugging them, and other strategies that may calm them down. So it is essential for parents to pay attention to these things that help their child to stay calm.

Autism limits children’s social and cognitive abilities. They may have language and cognitive deficiencies that hamper their verbal and intellectual capabilities. They cannot interact with others or understand topics talked about by those around them in the same way normal children can. However, these challenges can be overcome through regular interactions and teachings. Parents should play and engage with their children to improve their situations. Parents can have plans to mitigate the challenges based on their observation of the child. They can also benefit from the advice and guidance of the experts.

Autism is a global problem

Almost every country in the world is seeing a surge in autism cases. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that 1 in 100 children is autistic. Although autism is a worldwide problem, it is reported that some countries have higher numbers. The wealthy nations in the West and the Middle East top the list of countries with children suffering from autism. Although autistic cases exist in Somalia now, the author of this piece is unable to find any data indicating the severity of the situation.

In conclusion, I would like to urge Somalis in general and families with autistic children to recognize that the challenges associated with this ailment are manageable. If you have an autistic child, do not lose hope because, through patience, care, and the use of specialized services, there is a good chance that your child will be treated. Support from relatives and friends can also go a long way in aiding families of autistic children. Caring for the child once a week while allowing the parent to relax and rest will be beneficial. Spending some time with them, giving some gifts to them, and so on will also bring some relief, create bonds, and ease pressure on parents.

Abdi Mohamud
Email: [email protected]

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Related articles:

The ‘western’ disease: A call to action to assist families in the Somali diaspora By Sirad Shirdon

Concerned about Autism and your child? By Hibah A


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