By JOSEPHINE IGBINOVIA
AT age one, her son had a few words including “bye-bye”, “daddy”, and the house-help’s name. But six months later, he lost all of it and would simply run from one end of the room to another as a primary means of communication whenever he wanted something. That was the experience of Dotun Akande, a mother who narrated her son’s ordeal with autism.
Like every mother too, Helen Mbakwe dazzled with hopes and aspirations when she had her beautiful baby girl. The child’s development was normal, and at age two, she was enrolled into school. She had speech too, but at about age three, she gradually lost it until she finally became speechless.
Another mother, Angela Emuwa, recalled that her son who is now age 12 was 18 months old when he lost his speech. Before then, he was talking and everything was fine. Suddenly, his speech began to vanish until he couldn’t speak anymore. It was after undergoing the necessary tests that it was discovered that he had autism.
Dayo Jalekun, a mother with a 15-year-old son living with autism, also recalled that her son was talking but eventually lost speech at about age four.
“I took him to various places, and being a typical Nigerian, I sought supernatural intervention because I felt it was spiritual. I, however, finally found out and accepted that he had autism,” she explained.
In the face of these mysterious developments, the big question is: What is responsible for autism?
A neuro-developmental (brain) disorder which inhibits social and language skills, autism slows down the developmental milestone of the child and has been shown to affect more boys than girls on a ratio of 5 to 1.
Though they look like every other normal child, children living with autism exhibit diverse traits but the most basic include lack of eye contact, emotional detachment, repetitive or stereotypical behaviour, walking on tip toes, screaming without cause, delayed milestone in language development and more. They are predominantly non-verbal.
Sadly, with the proliferation of schools for autistic children in Nigeria and with each of these schools becoming densely populated by the day, science is yet to identify the cause of the disorder. Parents and paediatricians are at a loss as to what triggers autism.
Due to its characteristic time-frame of appearance however, some mothers speculate that the Measles, Mumps, Rubella-MMR vaccination administered to children might have a link with the development of autism, due to the fact that it has generally appeared in its victims between the ages of two and four.
Contrary to this speculation though, Prof.Afolabi Lesi, Consultant Paediatrician, Lagos University Teaching Hospital-LUTH, who spoke with VF, stressed that there remains no scientifically-known link between Measles, Mumps, Rubella-MMR vaccine and autism.
“There is no connection between MMR vaccine and autism. Some have said it is the cause of autism, but that’s not true. It is possible for mothers to associate the vaccine to autism because of the period at which autism manifests in children but the fact remains that science does not know what causes autism.
Of course, we know there are some associations such as Vitamin D related disorders, but beyond that, we do not know what causes autism,” Prof. Lesi said. Confessing that he sees more children with autism these days than he saw as a student, Prof. Lesi affirmed that though science has still not found a cure for autism, managements and interventions that could help children overcome autism are accessible.
“Through such interventions, a number of children have been able to come out of the situation. Such interventions include behaviour related modifications, special education, speech therapy, nutritional interventions like the prevention of foods rich in wheat, milk and sugar(which could worsen autism), and an increased consumption of Omega-3, etc.
All these are to ensure there is no deficiency that would further hamper brain development. I’ve seen improvements in children with autism, and I want to say that more children with autism will improve through consistent intervention and therapy,” he assured.
President of Parents Against Autism Initiative-PAAI, Angela Emuwa, one of the mothers earlier mentioned, though she wouldn’t blame the MMR vaccine, recalled that her son changed shortly after receiving the vaccine.
“Coincidentally, my son had his vaccines not long before he changed, but still, I cannot say vaccination is responsible. I would however advise that parents make sure their babies are very healthy before they have their vaccines. My child had a cold at the time when he had his own, but I didn’t consider it,” she explained.
However, admonishing parents to learn to love their affected children despite the mystery of autism, Dotun Akande, Proprietress, Patrick Speech & Language Centre, during an event tagged: ‘Demystifying Autism’, put together by her school recently, said: “Though we neither know the cause nor the cure for autism, we advise parents to love their children because that’s the only way they could totally overcome autism. My son is a living testimony because he has overcome autism and is now doing excellently well in a regular school! With adequate and consistent therapy and love, these children do get better.”
Another mother, Bolanle Adewole, founder, The Learning Place Centre, a special centre for children living with autism and related disorders, noted that though the MMR vaccine has not been scientifically proven to cause autism, research on autism have focused on environmental and genetic factors.
Bolanle Adewole whose nine-year-old is gradually overcoming autism, however, suspected that the jet age’s need for technological advancement might have a link with autism.
“You know, one thing with children with autism is that they are exceptionally skilled, especially in science and technology. A number of great people who have done historic things are on the autism spectrum! This includes Bill Gates, Robert Einstein and many others,” Bolanle said.