Autism awareness month

April is World Autism Month, and in support of this, ICTS will be raising funds for the Vera School for Autistic Learners. Based in Rondebosch East, it’s one of only five autism-specific government schools in SA – hosting 160 kids, with 35 of them staying on the premises during the week.

Being a special needs facility, the school struggles to meet its high operating costs – including specialist equipment, occupational therapists, and other full-time staff to help care for the kids with unique needs.

How can you help? 

Throughout the month, we’ll send out several messages containing key information about autism. We ask that you read through the emails to get a better understanding of what the condition is and the challenges autistic people face. The information is also published below.

Along with this, we’ll run several initiatives to raise funds for the school and get ICTS staff involved:

Donate your money
  • A donation box has been placed at ICTS on Main reception where you can drop your contributions. If you want to pay by EFT, or give larger amounts, please contact us so we can arrange the logistics.
  • Participate in our ‘civvies day’ and contribute your small (or large) donation.
  • We’ll be selling custom puzzles to raise funds for the school.
  • A Technics HiFi was donated and sold – with proceeds going towards our overall collection.
Donate your time
  • Tour the school: The vice principal will take a group of ICTS vsitiors around the facility during class time, giving us insight into the challenges the kids face and the specialised equipment used in their education. If you want to join the tour, please let us know. The date and time will be announced via email to your UCT email address.
  • Play with the kids: A group of ICTS volunteers will visit the school to spend an hour playing with the kids or assisting them with their activities. If you’d like to come along, please let us know so that we can plan appropriately. The date and time will be announced via email to your UCT email address.

Wear blue for Autism Awareness

Each April, the "Light it up Blue" campaign helps to promote autism awareness – with the colour blue symbolising calmness and acceptance. Tying into this, we invite you to wear something blue on Friday 26th April in exchange for a small financial contribution. We’ll come around on the day to collect your money, so please be ready to contribute – even if it’s just a R5.

Buy a puzzle

Also on Friday 26th April, we’ll be selling customised Autism Awareness coasters to raise funds for the school:

Autism awareness puzzle
  • One coaster costs R30.
  • Two coasters costs R50.

 The first 100 coasters sold will include a sweet treat.

The wooden coaster contains a puzzle heart – symbolising the complexity of the autism spectrum, with the colours representing the diversity among the autistic community.

We have a limited number of coasters, and we'll sell them on a first come, first served basis. Please email us your order as soon as possible to avoid disappointment. Alternatively, you can purchase your coaster on Friday 26th April, when we’ll walk around ICTS on Main selling them.

We thank you for your continuing support, and hope you’ll help to make this an amazing fundraiser for the kids at Vera.

All about autism

What is autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Autism, describes a group of complex differences in brain development. It affects the way people see the world and respond to stimuli (sound, light, touch, space, smell, taste). Autism is also known as a social communication disorder and affects four major areas of development:

  • Language and communication
  • Social interaction
  • Thinking and behaviour
  • Sensory processing

The symptoms of autism can usually be picked up before the age of three, while the severity of the condition and level of support needed varies.

The learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely impaired.

What causes autism?

So far, research hasn’t been able to identify the definite cause of autism. However, evidence strongly suggests that genetics plays a role in most cases.

Aside from this, however, there is agreement that autism is no-one’s fault: it is not a parent’s fault that their child has been born with autism. Autism is not the result of bad parenting either. Children with ASD do not choose to ‘misbehave’. What appears to be misbehaviour is often just a reaction to the environment. Those behaviours are merely expressions of the difficulties people with ASD experience.

How common is the condition?

Studies indicate that autism affects 1 in 68 people globally – with the rate of diagnosis growing significantly in recent years. In South Africa, it’s estimated that about one million of the population is affected by ASD – although exact figures are difficult to find as developmental disability research is not prioritised locally, and we suffer from a shortage of trained professionals in the field of autism.

Autism cuts across all ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds – but is four times more likely in males as compared to females.

Famous autistic personalities include Dan Akroyd, Anthony Hopkins, Daryl Hannah, Satoshi Tajiri (developer of Pokémon), and Temple Grandin (animal rights advocate and autism activist).

Signs of autism

There are numerous signs which indicate possible autism. If your child displays a number of these behaviours and you’re concerned, please arrange a screening with a qualified professional - such as a developmental paediatrician:

  • Little awareness of others.
  • Self-injurious behaviour, e.g. head banging, scratching or biting.
  • Unusual habits (e.g. rocking, hand flapping, spinning of object).
  • Delayed / absent / atypical development of speech and language.
  • Minimal reaction to verbal input and sometimes acts as though he/she is deaf.
  • Sudden laughing or crying for no apparent reason.
  • Pursues activities repetitively and cannot be influenced by suggestions of change.
  • Displays extreme distress and/or tantrums for no apparent reason.
  • Difficulty in interacting with others and little or no eye contact.
  • No real fear of dangers.
  • Doesn’t make attempts to get parent’s attention; doesn’t follow/look.
  • Seems to be “in his/her own world”.
  • Odd or repetitive ways of moving fingers or hands.
  • Oversensitive to certain textures, sounds or lights.
  • Compulsions or rituals (has to perform activities in a special way or certain sequence; is prone to tantrums if rituals are interrupted).
  • Preoccupations with unusual interests, such as light switches, doors, fans, wheels.
  • Walking up and down repetitively and spinning themselves.

What challenges do autistic people face? 

ASD-related developmental difficulties can manifest in various ways, such as impulsiveness, problems paying attention, learning disabilities, speech delays, emotional disconnection, and poor eye contact.

An estimated one-third of people with autism are non-verbal, with a significant portion also facing intellectual disability (IQ below 70). Children (and adults) with autism can wander off or bolt from safety – giving their families / caregivers significant concern.

Most autistic children have been bullied, while self-harm is also a characteristic that some sufferers experience.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) impacts between 30 to 61 percent of autistic children, and more than half suffer from chronic sleep problems. Anxiety disorders are also common among autistic children and teens.

However, while these conditions may be present in varying degrees among the autistic population, it’s important to note that no two people with autism are alike, so one cannot generalise when discussing challenges that autistic individuals face.

For families and caregivers who look after autistic people, costs are particularly high. While no accurate local figures are available, in the U.S., it’s estimated that autism costs an estimated $60,000 per year through childhood – with the bulk of this taken up by special services and lost wages due to the increased demands on parents.

With limited specialist schools available to autistic children, school attendance is also an issue. Data from the Western Cape Education Department for 2016 found 1,684 children on the spectrum, but only 940 of them were enrolled in school.

And, of course, autistic children become autistic adults, with even less assistance available. Recent statistics for unemployment among autistic adults in the United States found only 14% in paid employment, and only 20% of those were university graduates.

Which interventions assist autistic people?

Autism is a life-long condition with no known cure. However, the condition can be managed and quality of life can be improved by interventions which teach coping skills to such individuals.  Some people with ASD have lower support needs, while others need a lot of help and intensive intervention. 

Support measures include:

  • Putting structure and routine into place.
  • Speech therapy and/or augmentative communication and alternative communication strategies.
  • Occupational therapy or sensory integration therapy (to help manage sensory differences).
  • Naturalistic developmental behavioural interventions for children under the age of 5.
  • Parent coaching.
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
  • Bio-medical interventions (e.g. change in diet).

Early intervention is especially important, because the earlier intervention starts, the better the outcome is likely to be in the long term. Most learning is social, therefore learning can be enabled by early intervention models such as the Early Start Denver Model, Autism Navigator, D.I.R. Floortime, and Enhanced Miliieu Teaching – which that target very young autistic children’s communication and social-reciprocal skills. The younger the child, the greater the possibility of developing the communication centres in their brains that will then filter into all areas of learning.

How to interact with autistic people

Although autistic people may be a bit different to others, it’s important to treat them with the same kindness and respect that you expect others to treat you with. Keep in mind the following tips when interacting with an autistic person:

  • Make eye contact: Many autistic people struggle with this, so don’t regard a lack of eye contact as rudeness. Instead, look them in the eye and be welcoming.
  • Hold age appropriate conversation: Don’t talk down to them. Instead, speak at an age-appropriate level.
  • Don’t ignore: Even though an autistic person may seem to be ignoring you, this probably isn’t the case. Don’t react by ignoring them. Instead, acknowledge their presence.
  • Relax your mood: Autistic people can be very sensitive to the moods of others, and can even mirror your mood and behaviour. Try to relax so that everyone will feel more at ease.
  • Don’t judge: Some autistic people may display behaviour that could be considered inappropriate – such as yelling, laying down, tantrums, or grabbing objects. Although this may make you uncomfortable, don’t judge them, and try not to let your discomfort show. The less self-conscious the person feels, the more likely the situation will be resolved.
  • Use kind and encouraging words: An autistic person may not directly respond to your positive words, but they will likely register them. So continue to be positive, even if you don’t see a response.

Useful links and resources

Local organisations

International organisations

Autism-related films

Although movies will never be totally accurate, film is a powerful medium for showing the experiences of others and helping one to empathise with their condition. Here are a few prominent movies that centre around autistic characters: