Autism largely misdiagnosed in South Africa

The first conference held in Cape Town to discuss the prevalence of autism revealed that only 10% of people suffering from it are correctly diagnosed.
The first conference held in Cape Town to discuss the prevalence of autism revealed that only 10% of people suffering from it are correctly diagnosed.
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In South Africa only 10% of people with autism are correctly diagnosed. This emerged in Cape Town at the first conference held to discuss the prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD.

The conference took place this week at Valkenberg Hospital and was hosted by the University of Cape Town to mark Autism Month, which is observed globally in April each year.

ASD, according to a UCT statement, is a neuro-developmental disorder affecting at least 1% of the population of all ages worldwide. While the World Health Organisation has recognised ASD as a global public health priority, in South Africa there is little awareness about it.

Professor Petrus de Vries from the UCT department of psychiatry noted that just 10% of people living with autism in South Africa were correctly diagnosed.

As a result, families struggle to access the educational services needed for children and it is difficult for adults to find accommodating spaces in the wider community.

Carmen Walker, who works for an NGO called Autism So What, has a child living with ASD. She described the difficulty of interacting with him but urged people not to give up.

"No matter what they present, there is so much more to them than what we see," she said.

"My child is brilliant, he just doesn't speak the language that allows us to see it."

Bernice Daniels of the Western Cape education department said they have a programme to provide training for teachers in mainstream schools.

A new requirement in the teacher training curriculum is for all educators to have basic skills in special needs education.

"The goal is an inclusive society where everyone feels valued and included," said Daniels. "This starts at schools."

But Chris Breedt, who is autistic, noted that the forum itself was "a bit like being at a feminism discussion led only by men."

He stressed that it was vital for autistic people to be included in the conversation.

"It's hard for us to have our voices heard - we have difficulty participating in the academic world. Being able to become part of the research teams is a big thing for us now," Breedt said.

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