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Autism Rates in Kenya: More Boys Than Girls on the Autism Spectrum

Apr 4, 2024 #Kenya News
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By Senator Crystal Asige.

Recent statistics reveal that approximately 75 million people worldwide are on the autism spectrum. While autism affects 1 in 88 children, it is noteworthy that more boys tend to be on the spectrum than girls. It’s even more concerning that the number of children diagnosed with autism surpasses those diagnosed with Cancer, HIV/AIDS, and Diabetes combined.

Each year, on April 2nd, the United Nations observes World Autism Day to raise awareness about the causes, symptoms, and prevention of autism. This year, the focus is on creating a world that supports, champions, and celebrates individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), recognizing it as a growing global health issue.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Autism Spectrum Disorders encompass a range of conditions characterized by difficulties in social interaction, communication, and repetitive and restricted behavior. Historically, ASD has been misdiagnosed as Schizophrenia due to these traits.

In Kenya, autism affects approximately 4% of the population, roughly 2.2 million people, across varying degrees of the spectrum, ranking Kenya at number 46 globally. Both children and adults in these populations face numerous challenges throughout their lives, with many being minimally speaking or non-verbal and struggling to interpret social cues.

Unfortunately, autistic individuals often become targets of bullying, with children particularly vulnerable to incidents like kidnapping and physical harm due to wandering tendencies. However, with adequate support such as speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, behavioral therapy, and other interventions, individuals with autism can lead fulfilling lives and engage in everyday activities.

Notable figures like Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Bill Gates, Michelangelo, Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla, and Elon Musk are all believed to have been on the autism spectrum, demonstrating the significant contributions they’ve made to shaping our world.

Despite these potential, individuals with autism face significant barriers in education, employment, and socio-economic opportunities due to a lack of supportive policies, training, and infrastructure, particularly in early intervention.

Currently, Kenya has established a unit for autistic learners at City Primary School in Nairobi, which opened in 2003, alongside several private schools offering specialized learning. However, the accessibility of such institutions remains limited, primarily catering to those with financial means. Those in less fortunate circumstances encounter obstacles related to geography, poverty, inadequate health facilities, and low autism awareness, further exacerbating stigma and exclusion.

Efforts to address these challenges are underway, including the introduction of the Persons With Disabilities Bill (Senate Bill no. 7 of 2023), which for the first time includes provisions specific to persons with neurodiverse disabilities. However, more comprehensive measures are needed, such as budget allocations for training County Health Officers, teachers, and parents on early intervention through the Ministry of Health.

Additionally, the bill mandates government ministries to implement measures for offering therapy in schools rather than solely in hospitals, aiming to enhance accessibility for autistic learners and alleviate the financial burden on families.

Families of autistic individuals often face the dilemma of choosing between work and taking leave to attend therapy sessions, which can strain employment relationships and lead to financial hardship. Therefore, the bill proposes tax exemptions for parents and legal caregivers of persons with such conditions to ease their financial burden.

Improved monitoring of autistic learners in schools and prompt reporting of abuse cases are also crucial steps to enhance their treatment and protect them from harmful practices like corporal punishment or religious exorcisms due to misunderstanding and cultural barriers.

Furthermore, current legislation needs to align with the fundamental principle of legal capacity, ensuring that individuals with developmental disabilities are not unfairly restricted from exercising rights such as voting, marriage, accessing financial services, and giving consent to sexual activity.

In urging Members of Parliament in the National Assembly to prioritize equitable resource allocations for disability-related matters, I call for enhanced learning environments, public servant training, and widespread disability awareness campaigns aimed at educating Kenyans on the signs, symptoms, and realities of neurodiverse conditions.

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