Does my baby have autism? That is a question that parents of infants and babies frequently ask when they notice their child is not meeting his or her milestones as they should.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines the disease, fully known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), as a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain.
According to the Center, scientists do not know yet exactly what causes these differences for most people with the disease. “Some people with ASD have a known difference such as a genetic condition,” the Center says.
Official data on autism prevalence in Kenya is not available, but the Autism Society of Kenya (ASK), a parent-driven organization established in 2013, believes it could be up to 4 percent or one autistic child for every 25 children.
A 2018 statistics by the World Health Organization indicates that this is higher than the global average, which is one in 160 children or less than 1 percent.
A report by GeoPoll in Kenya indicates that there has been an increase in the cases of the disease over time.
According to the report that was conducted in 2019, the increase could be as a result of more cases of autism, or because of better awareness of the disorder
Nairobi-based pediatrician Doctor Kevin Wekesa says the early signs of ASD include not responding to their name by 12 months of age and not keeping eye contact or making very little eye contact.
He also says that babies who may have ASD may not respond to a parent’s smile or other facial expressions.
“A baby with ASD may also not look at objects or events a parent is looking at. For instance, a parent may be looking at and pointing at a plane in the sky while the baby has no interest in looking at it,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention highlights several signs of ASD to include having trouble understanding other people’s feelings or trouble talking about their own feelings.
According to the Center, the baby may also have delayed speech and language skills, as well as having obsessive interests.
“Typical infants are very interested in the world and people around them. By the first birthday, a typical toddler interacts with others by looking people in the eye, copying words and actions, and using simple gestures such as clapping and waving “bye bye”. Typical toddlers also show interest in social games like peek-a-boo and pat-a-cake. But a young child with an ASD might have a very hard time learning to interact with other people,” the Center says.
Commenting on the issue of delayed speech, Doctor Wekesa says babies and people with ASD have a host of communication issues which includes use of little to no gestures, as well as giving answers that do not relate to the questions.
Other common signs of ASD in children include hyperactivity, temper tantrums, aggression, and unusual eating and sleeping habits among others.
According to the GeoPoll report, there is no blood test or other straightforward blood tests that can diagnose autism.
The report also indicates that a diagnosis requires in-depth observations of the child along with parent questionnaires by a team of qualified professionals.
“Red flags for autism can be seen in a child as young as 9 months and autism can be diagnosed as young as 18 months of age. Early detection is imperative as it leads to early intervention which has been shown to improve symptoms significantly,” the report says.
According to data by the United Nations, autism in Kenya used to be associated with mental illness, curses, or witchcraft.
“Autistic children were confined to their homes and young adults taken to psychiatric institutions,” the UN said in a 2019 report.
“The good news is that the situation for children with autism and their parents is slowly changing, thanks to increasing awareness about the disorder, complemented by the efforts of affected families to band together to share information and experiences.”