April 09, 2013
Chantell Sands (name changed) recalls the day clearly -- last year she was in a clothing store on the western end of the island -- and observed a child running wildly through the store, getting into things he shouldn't have gotten into and wondering why the woman he was with who she assumed was his grandmother didn't do more than she actually did to control him. And she said she could see the store's staff itching to say something, and obviously just wanted them to get out of the store.
When the grandmother finally corralled the boy along with the other children she was with and who were, for the most part, a little less hyper active, than that one particular child, she said it struck her as they were leaving the store that the child had to be autistic. And she said she only came to that conclusion simply because she had been made more aware of the disorder in the last few years. And she found herself telling this to the staff in an effort to calm them down and to forgive the grandmother's failure to control the child.
Sands said the staff visibly relaxed but she honestly believed it was for the simple fact that the grandmother and the children had left the store. After years of reading about autism and how the children react to certain situations, she finally realized that she had become sensitized to the plight of the caregiver and the child. According to a REACH (Resources & Education for Autism and Related Challenges) co-vice president, Kim Gibson, this level of understanding is what the organization hopes more people can achieve.
She said they hope more people become more aware and empathetic to children with autism and the parents of autistic children. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. The disorders are characterized in varying degrees by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. ASD can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention and physical health issues.
Autism appears to have its roots in very early brain development. However, the most obvious signs of autism and symptoms of autism tend to emerge between two and three years of age. Autism statistics from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identify around one in 88 American children as on the autism spectrum -- a 10-fold increase in prevalence in 40 years. Studies also show that autism is four to five times more common among boys than girls. And that an estimated one out of 54 boys and one in 252 girls are diagnosed with autism in the United States.
"We would like [people] to be aware -- be empathetic," said Gibson as the world recognizes Autism Awareness Month during April. "What a lot of parents have found is that they take their kids out, the kids have a meltdown or may be hyperactive or may do something that other people may consider non-typical and people just stare or think the child is rude because they do not understand.
But we want people to understand because it's difficult for some parents. Some parents get to the point where they don't take their children out or even to church because they feel that people keep staring and people don't understand," she said. It is Gibson's and REACH's hope that more people can become sensitized to the spectrum of disorders like Sands was. She said they have found that as a result of raising the awareness, more parents who had felt absolutely hopeless had walked through the doors of the REACH organization seeking help.
She said REACH also aims to sensitize the public to the educational plight facing autistic children -- including the young adults. She said there are simply not enough school facilities for the children and that there is a need for vocational training for the young adults. While there are no figures on the numbers of autistic children in The Bahamas, Gibson said REACH believes the number of autistic children in The Bahamas is on pace with the numbers diagnosed internationally simply because they are outgrowing the classroom space they currently have. "We need more classroom space," she said.
"There are children who aren't in school. There are children who are in classes that aren't for autistic children and it's because of the frequency of children being diagnosed, we're seeing the numbers increase rapidly and the pediatricians are referring people to us for support. Every meeting there are new people coming in, so that's why we're thinking it's more in line," she said. There are currently two primary school autistic units -- one at Garvin Tynes Primary and the other at Stapledon School for the Mentally Challenged.
There is one high school unit at Anatol Rodgers. Gibson said REACH would like to see a classroom unit in the eastern district of New Providence "Besides the fact that [the units we have] are crowded, none are in the east. We have a parent who had to not live at home during the week with her husband and their other child in Winton Meadows and had to live with her mother who lives closer to Garvin Tynes because it was too difficult to get an autistic child up in the morning to get the child to Garvin Tynes," said Gibson.
The region's first preschool classroom equipped to meet the needs of autistic children was opened last year at Willard Patton Preschool, courtesy of Rotary club, REACH and the Ministry of Education. Gibson further said there is a dire need to provide vocational training for autistic young adults. "When young adults with autism leave Anatol Rodgers School they absolutely have nothing to do but go home and sit around," said Gibson. "But because autism is on such a wide spectrum, children have different abilities -- some may be very computer literate, some may be very functional, so we're trying to give them vocational training so perhaps they can have a job of some sort -- even if it's folding pizza boxes or helping to make beds in a hotel.
So we want to start vocational training skills for young adults for when they leave school and we're planning that right now." Long term, Gibson said REACH has a goal to construct an assisted living facility that all special needs children can use. "A major concern for parents with children not just with autism, but all special needs is what happens to them when they die. Right now there's only Sandilands [Rehabilitation Centre]," said Gibson. "We had a parent who has an adult child with autism and any time she was sick or had to travel, she had no one to keep her adult child.
She would put him in Sandilands. In the United States they have these assisted living centers that are nice, clean and regulated -- almost like an old folks home, but for adults with autism and other disabilities and that's what we're really lobbying for -- someplace where they can live ... worst case scenario if their parents pass away. The likelihood is that they [autistic children] will outlive their parents." Autism Awareness Month kicked off worldwide with Autism Awareness Day on Tuesday, April 2. Major landmarks around the world like the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Empire State Building in New York were lit blue.
In The Bahamas, blue candles were lit in Rawson Square as they joined in the Light It Up Blue campaign. In an attempt to involve all Bahamians in the awareness fight this month, the United States Embassy donated blue light bulbs to the REACH organization for distribution to the community to be used in homes or business establishments. People can collect a blue light bulb from the REACH office in the Dewgard Shopping Center, Palmdale, behind the McDonald's drive-thru to help the organization shine a light on autism and create awareness. REACH can be contacted at 328-4123.
CALENDAR OF EVENTS Saturday, April 13 9 a.m. -- Community March: Begins at Windsor Park, and traverses East Street, Ross Corner, Chapel Street, Meadow Street, Augusta Street, Meeting Street and Nassau Street to Arawak Cay. Members of REACH will be handing out information pamphlets along the route. Sunday, April 14 11 a.m. -- Televised church service at St. Barnabas Anglican Church. Wednesday, April 17 6:30 p.m. -- Parent support group meeting at REACH office, Dewgard Shopping Center, Palmdale, behind the McDonald's drive-thru.
Friday, April 19 T-shirt day. Saturday, April 20 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.: Information booth at the Mall at Marathon Saturday, April 27 Outreach Day Away Boat trip to Harbour Island; adults $91.70, Children 2-11 years of age $63.70. Every Wednesday during the month of April will be known as Open House Wednesday between 12 noon and 6:30 p.m.
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