A YOUNG mother would like nothing more than to have a normal conversation with her six-year-old son, who has been diagnosed with autism.

A YOUNG mother would like nothing more than to have a normal conversation with her six-year-old son, who has been diagnosed with autism.

"I pray that one day he will be able to talk and tell me when he is hurt or what he is feeling. Most of the time it feels like he is in a world of his own," Busisiwe (not her real name) said.

Busisiwe's son, "Nhlanhla", was diagnosed with autism when he was three years old.

Autism South Africa (ASA) defines autism as a "lifelong, extremely complex and often devastating disability". Its cause is unknown and can result in disordered brain development and biochemical function.

It affects at least one in 110 children under the age of six and occurs more with boys than girls.

Nhlanhla is now six and attends a school for children with special needs, where he receives speech and physical therapy to help with his coordination, which were affected by his condition.

His mother, a medical professional, said her son "developed normally" until he was two years old. She said she at first feared Nhlanhla was losing his hearing when he did not respond when his name was called.

"When I took him to a crowded, noisy place he reacted strangely and started scratching me."

She sent him to an ear, nose and throat specialist, who found nothing wrong with his hearing.

"He would refuse to play with his toys. He also lost interest in physical touch and would refuse to be held and kissed," she said.

"At times it felt like he was possessed by a spirit and he would run away from me if I tried to hold or kiss him.

"He stopped eating certain foods and developed a taste for soft foods such as yoghurt and porridge."

His sleeping patterns also changed.

"He would sing or talk in his sleep or stare at his fingers for a very long time. It was very frustrating because I could tell that something was wrong with him, but I didn't know what exactly."

Family members tried to explain his change in behaviour in different ways.

"Others said our ancestors were not happy and advised us to perform certain rituals. We tried all of them. Though they did little to help our child, they strengthened our faith and hope."

Once Nhlanhla was diagnosed with autism, his mother and her family accepted that his condition was "here to stay".

She said raising an autistic child was difficult and required one to be an "octopus with more than one pair of hands" to help him.

She said this meant being in tune with her son's routine, closely monitoring his diet and avoiding substances that could make him hyperactive or aggressive.

ASA national director Jill Stacey said there were less than 10 "autism specific" schools in South Africa.

Because of "altered chemistry" in the brain, it hinders the sufferer's language, communication skills and social interaction. Autism is often referred to as "Autism Spectrum Disorder" because it manifests itself in a number of ways.

These are:

lKanner/Classic Autism includes intellectual impairment;

lThose suffering from Asperger's Syndrome generally display a good or above average intellectual ability, but still have most debilitating autistic traits;

lSufferers of Savant Autism display at least one almost "superhuman" ability, but the rest of their functioning is adversely affected by autism.

Stacey listed a number of "red flags" that can point to autism in children's development:

lNo babbling by 11 months of age;

lNo simple gestures such as waving goodbye by 12 months;

lNo single words by 16 months and two-word phrases such as "baby sleeping" by 24 months;

lNo response when name is called;

lLoss of language or social skills;

lThe child does not make eye contact, rarely smiles or shows interest in people's faces;

lThe child does not point to show interest in things;

lSeems to be in his or her own world;

lThe child displays odd or repetitive actions;

lHas compulsions or rituals - and is prone to tantrums if interrupted.