This World Autism Awareness Day is marked this Sunday, April 2, the ninth of its kind globally, with autism organisations worldwide holding fundraising and awareness events.
Autism is a condition that affects a number of people in the Cayman Islands and, as a result, the day will be noted with a two km walk/jog organised by The Lighthouse School, Cayman’s education centre that specifically helps children with special needs, a fundraiser that will be held at Camana Bay this Saturday, April 1, starting at 6.30 a.m.
According to medical studies, autism is a growing concern worldwide, with the prevalence of the condition increasing significantly in recent years. One in 68 people are born with it in the U.S. and one 2008 study by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention concluding that it is the fastest-growing developmental disability. In America, its prevalence in children increased by 119.4 percent between 2000-10. While there are no specific statistics on the prevalence of autism in Cayman, experts believe the incidence is in line with worldwide figures.
Shannon Seymour, Director and Registered Clinical Psychologist with The Wellness Centre, said: “Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder which affects various aspects of development, including communication, social interaction and play. It is a spectrum disorder which means the symptoms and severity of those symptoms can vary significantly between people.”
People with autism have difficulty in communication and social interaction. They may also have some behaviours which can interfere with their ability to engage in learning, employment or developing the skills needed to be independent, Seymour said.
To gain a diagnosis for children, parents need to trust their gut and ask for help if they have concerns.
“There are several psychologists on island qualified to make a diagnosis of autism. If you are worried, start by talking to your paediatrician. They will be able to refer you to someone who can do the appropriate assessments to make the diagnosis,” Seymour stated. “Teachers or other professionals may also be involved. Part of the assessment will involve observing your child at home, at school or in an assessment setting. Your child will need to spend some time one-on-one with the psychologist as well.”
Seymour said early intervention was key. “The earlier the better so that intervention can get started right away. If you have concerns talk to your paediatrician or contact The Wellness Centre.”
The good news is that Cayman has many great providers who have expertise in working with children with autism, Seymour advised.
“ABA Therapy, Speech Therapy and Occupational Therapy are generally considered the gold standard interventions for autism, but there are some emerging interventions that are proving very helpful. It’s important that the intervention plan be developed based on your child’s unique needs as every child with autism is unique,” she advised, adding the treatment plan should be made in consultation with a psychologist and paediatrician.
There are, however, barriers for people to get the help they need for their children with autism.
“The biggest barrier for families living with autism is the cost of intervention and the lack of health insurance coverage,” Seymour said. “Autism is a medical condition, and we need legislative changes to our health insurance law so that people with autism can’t be denied coverage, and we need coverage that actually provides the services that we know make a difference in the lives of people with autism.”
Seymour urged politicians to be brave enough to hold the insurance industry to task on this issue and to structure and fund programmes such as early intervention so that they can be more effective.
“It’s very expensive to give a child with autism everything they need to ensure the best possible outcome for their adult life, but it is way more expensive to provide lifetime adult care to an individual with autism who has never been given an opportunity to reach their fullest potential,” she said.
For children in the Cayman Islands living with the condition, The Lighthouse School is a vital resource that offers programmes specifically targeting helping youngsters to develop their social and communication skills, which will then help them to live normal lives as adults.
Jamie Mulgrew, Deputy Principal at the school, said they have around 14-15 students with autism within the 5-17 age range, and these students are often suffering from an additional learning difficulty as well. If students have a severe form of the condition, such as a complete inability to speak (which happens more frequently when the child is very young), students benefit from one to one tuition with teachers.
“Encouraging social skills and communication makes up about half of the curriculum and is hugely important,” Mulgrew explained. “For children who cannot speak we use the Proloquo2Go ipad system, which is a really fantastic resource that gives the children a voice. It can be quite emotional when children start to use this system because up until that point you often don’t know what the child is thinking.”
Other programmes that have made great headway for students suffering from autism include dolphin and horse riding therapies, which help students to engage with others and communicate with people other than themselves, Mulgrew advised.
At The Lighthouse School, teachers focus on helping students with autism to understand their own feelings and behaviour and how to deal with them.
“Having autism can be very stressful for the students, so we teach them how to recognise when they are upset and how to take responsibility for their own behaviour early on,” Mulgrew explained. “Children with autism might also suffer from other conditions such as sensory disturbances, anxiety or sleep disorders, so we teach them how to manage their anxiety, for example, so they know when to ask for a break.”
Mulgrew said that the aim is to help the youngster lead as independent a life as possible and have a good quality of life.
Students, parents and teachers are all looking forward to their fundraising walk on Saturday. Registration sheets are available at The Lighthouse School or online with Cayman Active.
Entry is $15 for adults, $10 for children (13-17), and free for children 12 and under. The registration fees include an Autism Awareness T-shirt while supplies last. All proceeds will go towards the continuity of essential activities and programmes for students with autism.