Making sense of autism

By admin
09 April 2014

An autistic child is born every 45 minutes in South Africa and experts say the number of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) definitely has increased over the past few years. We take a closer look at this disorder.

An autistic child is born every 45 minutes in South Africa. In America one in every 50 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). There are no statistics for South Africa but experts say the number of children with ASD is definitely on the increase.

What is the cause?

A recent study by researchers at the University of Chicago found babies who are exposed to excessive pollution when they’re still in the womb are 283 per cent more likely to have autism than any other congenital disease.

Dr Louise Lindenberg, a general practitioner with a special interest in autism, says the generally accepted view is that ASD is a genetic predisposition and that environmental factors such as pollution play a complex role in the manifestation of autism.

“I don’t think we’ll get a straightforward answer to what causes autism – it’s rather a case of various things that play the wrong role at the wrong time [during the child’s development],” she says.

“Every child with autism is different and their health risks vary.”

What about vaccines?

Dr Lindenberg believes the topic of MMR (measles, mumps and German measles or rubella) vaccines is controversial. She’s treated autistic patients who didn’t have the MMR vaccine.

“Vaccines promote public health and I would never advise a parent not to vaccinate their child. Parents can be more selective about vaccinating their children: Take your child’s development and risks into account and postpone the vaccines by a few months perhaps,” she says.

Does my child have autism?

You can see specific aspects of your child’s development from a young age. “One of the first signs to look out for in a healthy baby is that he can breastfeed effectively because it’s indicative of motor function,” Dr Lindenberg says.

“At two months a baby must be interactive, which includes smiling and watching moving objects. At nine months babies usually respond to their name and recognise people. At this age they enjoy playing cooee.”

If you suspect your child may have autism keep an eye out for these signs:

  • Doesn't react to their name when you but especially strangers address them;
  • Doesn't respond to social questions such as “What is your name?” and don't smile during social circumstances;
  • Doesn't copy your movements or follow your instructions;
  • Doesn't respond to body language and are not interested in sociable activities;
  • Doesn't get excited at the mention of games such as hide-and-seek;
  • Doesn't look at you for affirmation or to confirm participation;
  • Doesn't make eye contact easily;
  • Is abnormally sensitive to sensory stimuli such as noise or touch;
  • Has sudden tantrums for no apparent reason;
  • Struggles with potty training;
  • Displays repetitive and/or obsessive behaviour, such as opening and closing doors or switching lights on and off;
  • Struggles with change in their routine or environment.


If you suspect your child has autism it’s important to have them diagnosed. Autism can only be diagnosed by observing the child’s behaviour. The best diagnosis involves a thorough developmental history (which the parents can observe) and observation by a trained doctor or clinical staff.

One person can do the observation but a team of people, for instance the child’s teachers, paediatrician and psychologist, are required for an accurate diagnosis.

Get help here

Although autism is a lifelong condition for which there’s no cure, there’s hope. The sooner a child starts therapy, the better the prognosis. More than half the children who start therapy at the age of two are ready to attend a mainstream school within a few years.

-Shané Barnard

Sources:,, Sarie (April 2014)

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