Amidst reports that over 70 million people are suffering from autism worldwide, experts at this year’s Guaranty Trust Bank (GTB)’s Annual Autism Conference have charged Nigerians to stop discriminating against people who have Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), as they are special potentials that can be developed for maximum productivity.
Speaking at the conference, which was held on the 30th and 31st of July 2019 at the Muson Centre, Onikan, Lagos, Aliya Gordon Redwine, a lead clinical supervisor on autism from Israel, described autism as being essentially a social impairment, affecting children’s ability to communicate with and to socialise with other children and adults.
Dr Loretta Burns, a US-based psychologist and behaviorist specialist, added that about one per cent of the world’s population is estimated to be on the autism spectrum.
According to Burns, “As part of human diversity, autistic persons should be embraced, celebrated and respected. However, discrimination against autistic children and adults is more the rule rather than the exception.”
According to the psychologist and CEO of Abes Clinic Nigeria, in many countries, autistic persons lack access to services which would support, on an equal basis with others, their right to health, education, employment, and living in the community. She that added that, even when available, such services are often too far from being human rights-friendly or evidence-based.
Burns buttressed her point by disclosing that autistic persons are particularly exposed to professional approaches and medical practices which are unacceptable from a human rights point of view. Also, she noted that such practices which are often justified as treatment or protection measures violate their basic rights, undermine their dignity, and go against scientific evidence.
Speaking on how discrimination against autistic persons can be avoided, Burns said more investment is needed in services and research into removing societal barriers and misconceptions about autism. She also advised that autistic persons should be recognised as the main experts on autism and on their own needs, adding that funding should be allocated to peer-support projects run by and for autistic persons.
“Autistic persons should be respected, accepted and valued in our societies, and this can only be achieved by respecting, protecting and fulfilling their basic rights and freedoms,” Burns explained.
Commenting on the rationale behind the conference, Segun Agbaje, the chief executive officer of Guaranty Trust Bank Plc, said: “Children and adults living with autism often lack the support and vocational training that they need to develop critical life skills for leading independent and productive lives.
“As an organisation that is passionate about uplifting the most vulnerable in our society, we will continue to empower people living with autism with all the support and resources that they need to reach their full potential.”
During the conference, a speech-language pathologist and tech expert, Jeannette Washington also from the United States, spoke on why the tech industry needs autistic learners. She explained that the skill sets needed to care for autistic people need to be more accessible. According to her, so far, only 120 research publications have been published on autism in Africa.
Washington said, “It is important to look at what the autistic child can do, not what he cannot do. Children living with ASD need various levels of support. A level one support autism will need less support than a level three patient. Therefore, educators can help autistic children leave lasting fingerprints in the tech space.”
The speech language pathologist added that a record 34 percent of students living with autism go to pursue Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) skills at the university level, noting that this is so because it is easier for them to function in the tech space.
“Because people living with autism respond better to patterns, tech seems like the pathway. STEM usually has patterns and machines are way more predictable than humans and involve routines,” she said.
She further explained that autistic people also want gainful reputable employment, which she believes that tech companies offer.
“Microsoft, Google, and IBM are only a few tech giant companies that leave room for the employment of autistic people. They also have the right support and environment that will make them thrive,” Washington said.
Other speakers at the event included: Dr. Tisa Hooper-Johnson, the Medical Director of the HFHS Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities (CADD) USA; Janette Washington, a speech-language pathologist with nearly a decade of experience working with children living with autism and other special needs; and Ivie Emokpae, a qualified special needs coordinator from the Institute of Education, London.