Autism in Africa

In Mental Health on November 10, 2012 at 4:02 am

Autism is a popular topic in developed countries. My perception was that it was a phenomena confined to the West with little or no occurrence in Africa. Therefore, I was surprised to watch a TED video of someone, who I suspect to be originally from Nigeria, share her experience with Autism. I was intrigued  to learn more about this disorder and its impact on Africans.

Autism is a developmental disorder which usually manifests in early childhood. Children with autism exhibit repetitive behaviour  patterns and interests, and obvious deficits in communication and social interaction. The earliest research on autism in Africa was carried out by Victor Lotter as far back as 1978. His research was carried out in 6 African countries. The result of his research was a low prevalence of autism. However, his research methods appeared to be flawed. Since then, not a lot of a studies has been carried out on this disorder. The prevalence rate in the various countries on the continent is unknown. Outside the African continent, it has been observed that children born to Africans immigrants in Europe exhibit a higher prevalence of autism compared to the indigenous population.

There is a need for research to be carried out to determine the burden of Autism in Africa. Also, it is important that health care providers are trained to identify and address cases. Policymakers also need to focus on providing the necessary infrastructure to manage this condition. In the video below, Faith Jegede shares her experience of living with 2 brothers with Autism.

  1. Thanks for posting this but, like many issues regarding Africa, more research is needed before we can even begin to draw general conclusions.

  2. We agree! autism is an area of health that is yet to be explored in Africa

  3. Your posting is very informative. I fear that autsim might hit Africa even harder than the hiv/aids if the africans do not put in a place a strategic system to address it at this time.

  4. Mental health research has not been taken seriously on the continent. We hope that advocacy groups and individuals would put such issues on the front burner. Thank you for your comment!

  5. Mental health in children is grossly neglected. I come across children with Autism and their parents are simply devastated , especially when they narrate their experience with community about their child. Tanzania is the country I am talking about.. I feel sad to see these children with no proper services …..

  6. As with many diagnoses, – knowing and naming a condition that is causing distress or exclusion is useful, – if it means better understanding and support services. If it means stigma and misunderstandings, – not so good. I am concerned re someone saying autism could hit Africa harder than hiv/aids. Autism is not something that spreads or can be ‘caught’. There will be no more or less people in Africa with Autism in a few years, – but there may be some more support for those who are finding their lives limited by autism, – and for whom supports would enhance their lives. Assessments and supports, when available, may result in more people being diagnosed, – but that is different to autism increasing.

    • Thanks for the clarification Nuala. Indeed, with advocacy and increased referral services, we could see an increase in diagnosis. The emphasis is on research and support for all those affected by autism

      • Thanks for the question. The truth is the physical health despite all the giggles to get people to take care of their health is still highly ignored not to talk of mental health that is highly stigmatised. We need to know the facts of mental health in Nigeria before we can understand the strategies for accessing the services. The government have 8 stand alone mental health hospitals scattered in the 6 geo-political zones aside from the various units in the university teaching hospitals, state teaching hospitals and the federal medical centers. There is 1 Psychiatrist to 1 million Nigerian and so on. Our biggest barrier to accessing mental health services is STIGMA.There are some on going strategies to improve access to mental health services which we hope over time will be success stories in the country. For us at Pinnacle Medical Services, we do “school based mental health programme” which involves going to schools to enlighten teachers, students and even parents on the signs and symptoms of mental illnesses. This is aimed at early detection which we believe will lead to better outcome. Also, we do “Psyche on air” in one of the radio stations and speak on Morning ride with NTA National Network on sundays ( not regularly due to lack of sponsors). We have a blog dedicated to mental health and also leverage on other social media like facebook, twitter etc. We also do free seminars, workshops etc for organizations and work with other NGOs………….We walk and talk mental health because we know health is wealth and there is no health without mental health.

  7. I agree. In Africa, most mental disorders are believed to be some form of ‘curse’, a fallacy which is sometimes even propagated by the Church; and all one needs is ‘prayers’ so that the ‘demons’ can go away and the curse is ‘lifted’. In addition, it is highly stigmatized and this is what drives people not to talk about it. Unless w first find a way of educating the masses, mental disorders will remain the ‘work of the Devil’.

  8. This is a very sensitive matter we are discussing here. As an AFRICAN living and practising in Africa, the word AUTISM is yet to be accepted. I’m a Nigerian and for me, alot of of us are yet to understand the concept of the causes and mangement of this neurodevelopmental disorder. Some still associate it “spiritual attack/curse” while others know its a medical problem but no hope for the management. We lack good support services and stigma is a big barrier to treatment seeking behaviour. As a practitioner in that field, what I have realised is that the burden of care and the quality of lives of the affected families is still very high. We are doing advocacy but this is not enough due to lack of funding and many other factors. Another major factor is, quackery is still very celebrated. Quite a number of people, that call themselves “therapist” claim they do this and that but in the real sense do not have the requisite expertise to carry out the desired treatment and since the families need help, any thing goes for them. As a result, their financial burden increases leading to failure of follow up or not even seeking for help anymore. This is sad but what can we do. We are hoping on more researches in Africa, improve on our public enlightemement and advocacy on this disorder, and we also employ the input of well meaning organizations and the government to also add their support. Please, ideas are welcome on how we can tackle this problem. Thanks.

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