Autistic student steps out

2012-02-13 00:00

AS a child Melissa Naude had to be taught how to hold herself up, how to hold a pencil, how to make eye contact and how to socially interact — things which come naturally to most people.

But on March 31 the 19-year-old University of KwaZulu-Natal social science student will undertake a journey few people are likely to attempt. Naude will leave Durban for Cape Town on foot to raise awareness about autism spectrum disorders.

Said Anna Atkins of the Association for Autism: “April is World Autism Awareness Month. We thought it would be a good opportunity to create public awareness of the immense challenges for those living on the autism spectrum and to raise funds for those with autism.”

The association has teamed up with Charity-on-the-Go, De Grendel Homes, Autism Eastern Cape, Academy for Adults with Autism and Action in Autism to organise “The Big Autism Thing”, which was officially launched in Durban this week.

The initiative was endorsed by Durban Mayor James Nxumalo, who said he hoped it would go a long way towards raising awareness about autism.

A neuro-developmental disorder, autism results in qualitative impairment of social interaction and communication. It also causes restrictive, repetitive and stereotyped behaviour patterns, interests and activities.

Atkins said 300 000 South Africans are on the autism spectrum.

“It is vital that South Africans are sensitised to autism as it occurs in every community and every country on earth.”

Naude was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome — a mild form of autism — when she was eight years old, but early interventions — crucial in the development of autistic children — were the norm, thanks to her mother.

“I’ve been quite fortunate. I had lots of early interventions like support from psychologists, physiotherapists, neurologists. My mum put a lot of effort into this. She’s been my rock.”

Now Naude hopes to raise awareness so that others can follow her example.

“I hope by creating awareness we can raise funds for autism so that other people and their families can get the help and support they need to succeed.”

Naude has been walking 40 km a day and working out in the gym regularly to prepare for the walk, which is expected to last two months.

“I’m really excited, but I’m also a bit nervous,” she said. “It’s going to be quite a challenge being away from home.”

At Naude’s side will be her close friend Nolwazi Magwaza, a second-year public relations student at the Durban University of Technology, who is not autistic.

“I’ve known her for three years; I’ve seen what she goes through,” said Magwaza.

“She had a lot of negativity directed at her at school; she’s been called names even in matric.

“So I thought, why not? It’s not going to hurt me to take two months off my studies.”

Naude’s mother, Florette, said the walk presented an opportunity for her daughter to learn to be independent. “I spent 19 years guiding her and protecting her and this is her dream, so she needs to live it.

“It’s an opportunity for her to foster a love for nature and to be her own unique person.”

“The Big Autism Thing” kicks off on the Durban beachfront at 8 am on March 31.

More information is available at www.bigautismthing.co.za.

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