OPINION: Autistic persons vulnerable during Covid-19 outbreak

Professor Hlengiwe Mkhize is Deputy Minister in the Presidency for Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities. (Chester Makana, Correspondent)
Professor Hlengiwe Mkhize is Deputy Minister in the Presidency for Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities. (Chester Makana, Correspondent)

As exerted in the implementation matrix of government strategic plan, government and society should work together to combat stereotypes, prejudices and harmful practices relating to persons with disabilities in all spheres of life, writes Hlengiwe Mkhize.


It is World Autism Awareness Day, which this year, we observe during a time where the world faces a Covid-19 outbreak.

The outbreak does not make it easy for such a day to be fully acknowledged, and even giving adequate care to autistic persons and advocating fully, that they too have rights.

During these unprecedented times, they remain vulnerable, even when some should be enjoying their transition to the next phases of their lives.

As the country walks uncharted waters with the nationwide lockdown, and I emphasise that vulnerable groups, including autistic persons should be cared for.

Noting that autism is a developmental disability characterised by difficulties with social interaction and communication, autistic persons should be assisted to ensure that they are protected from contracting Covid-19 as they may be unable to communicate to seek medical help or relay their symptoms.

Due to communication difficulties, autistic persons with autism are also considered a vulnerable group when it comes to Gender-Based Violence, as they may not be able to report incidents of abuse.

In addition, or autistic children with autism, may not understand what abuse is.

Autistic persons could further potentially be more at risk over this time due to the fact that they are not able to access the required support services. 

There are going to be unforeseen fallouts of the lockdown. Parents of autistic children are no longer able to access speech, physio, occupational and other important therapy for their child. 

It is an established fact that early intervention services for an autistic child could significantly change the developmental trajectory of that child in a positive way. 

Just missing one month of therapy will have a major impact on our autistic children. We need to begin exploring ways of how these gaps are going to be addressed once the lockdown has been lifted.

In addition to this, non-speaking autistic persons may be at a heightened risk of all forms of abuse, as they not able to communicate with others. 

Unless their caregivers and those who assist them are available, it is unlikely that emergency services, SAPS and the medical fraternity are able to communicate with the autistic person. 

Covid-19 has highlighted many gaps  in service delivery, and perhaps - once we have returned to a "new normal" - we need to seriously consider engaging with various service providers and stakeholders, to equip them with the required skills to communicate with our non-speaking autistic persons.

To reiterate the UN Secretary General’s words “The rights of persons with autism must be taken into account in the formulation of all responses to the Covid-19 virus.

"On World Autism Awareness Day, let us stand together, support each other and show solidarity with persons with autism," said António Guterres (UN Secretary General).

According to the United Nations (UN), disease outbreaks affect women and men differently, and pandemics make existing inequalities for women and girls and discrimination of other marginalized groups such as persons with disabilities, worse.

My department will work with counterparts in the security cluster, to ensure that relevant government services remain open during this crucial time to ensure there is adequate support and communication in assisting persons with disabilities.

Guterres says " ... realising the rights of persons with disabilities is a matter of justice as well as an investment in our common future".

He further added that the UN mission should be "central to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and leaving no one behind".

The Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities calls on all South Africans to take the time to understand Autism Spectrum Disorder, in order to foster acceptance and understanding towards autistic persons. with autism.

As Deputy Minister, I also agree with the UN recommendations when dealing with disabled people, that government should provide accurate and supportive care and messaging with the intention to enhance people’s safety, dignity and rights.

With the help of relevant departments, the enhancement of people’s safety, dignity and rights will be placed as a priority.

More critical, is to ensure the response to Covid-19 does not reproduce or perpetuate harmful discriminatory practices and inequalities post-Covid-19.

Guterres alludes that "persons with autism have the right to self-determination, independence and autonomy, as well as the right to education and employment on an equal basis with others". 

He further explains that the breakdown of vital support systems and networks as a result of Covid-19 exacerbates the obstacles that autistic persons with autism face in exercising these rights.

"We must ensure that a prolonged disruption caused by the emergency does not result in rollbacks of the rights that persons with autism and their representative organizations have worked so hard to advance."

As exerted in the implementation matrix of government strategic plan, government and society should work together to combat stereotypes, prejudices and harmful practices relating to persons with disabilities in all spheres of life.

While young people remain at home to adhere to lockdown regulations we would like to draw their attention to the need for innovative programmes designed to support autistic youth with autism to navigate the transition to adulthood, and to become full participants in the realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals, both as agents of change and beneficiaries.

- Professor Hlengiwe Mkhize is Deputy Minister in the Presidency for Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities

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