• Monday, May 27, 2024
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Early awareness, intervention can control autism – says Loretta Burns


Loretta Burns is the founder/ CEO of Advanced Behaviour and Education, ABE International Clinics and Consultancy Limited, USA. For 25 years, she is committed to improving the lives of individuals with autism and cognitive disorders. She was in Nigeria last week to facilitate the interactions and learning, necessary for all individuals to successfully become contributing members of society. BusinessDay engaged her on her mission. Excerpts.

Why are you in Nigeria?

I am in Nigeria at least 3-5 times every year. However this time I am looking to kick start of my lifelong dreams which is  helping Nigerian children and people with autism and cognitive disorders. Over the years I have always had to come to Nigeria because I have a lot of clients who are Nigerians and they struggle with visas and many other issues to come to my clinic in US and UK. So we decided to come to Nigeria to bring the services to them. I focus on cognitive disorders, providing support to people who are suffering from autism, Down syndrome, intellectual disorders and mental health support. I have been in this service for 25 years.

What informed your interest in handling these issues?

When I began many years ago, I saw people that have autism could do anything, learn or be engaged in productive activities. I noticed that most people with these disorders were placed in special homes and some families are separated because they don’t know how to deal with the issue. I therefore researched on dealing with it and specialised on it. After working closely with families, children and seeing their changes, they were able to get jobs and become part of society, this boosted my passion in this area.

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From your experience, what are really the causes of this disorder, especially among children?

Research shows that there are two reasons that people have autism. It is either generational or environmental. It is either parents have it in their genes or it could be from the environment. When I said environment, I mean pollution because when you look at autism, it is a neurological disorder and it impacts communication and social skills. Also, when you look at intellectual disability, it really focuses on what is happening in the society or environment that causes the deficit in neurons. It is seen more now because it is prevalent. Before, people didn’t know what to call it. Now, they believe that every mental disorder is autism, which is not.  Unfortunately, there is always an overlapping mis-diagnosis or mis-treatment.

So how can it be controlled?

By keeping the environment clean but my role is really early intervention. The sooner we can identify, make changes, even within the homes or certain areas such as schools and communities, to train and shape behaviours quickly so that all these individuals can get jobs, become contributing members of the society, the better. If it is controlled, they are able to be engaged in the society and not kept at home or in the shadows.  My role is to detect it early enough so that it can be controlled or treated.

What else can society do to check these disorders?

It is really about supporting schools. School is a big part as almost everybody sends their child to school. It is also training and working closely with doctors, hospital and facilities so that they know what to do. As early as 6-months or a year or two of a child, it can be diagnosed if there is any deficit. We don’t have to wait till a child is 6 or 8 years, because by then, time is lost. We can test sooner, which is good and can begin building behaviour strategies. We can also train you on how you treat the child every morning and we go into classrooms, teach teachers and principals on how to blend inclusion. Children with autism and disorders don’t need to go to separate schools, but it is about providing support in similar background.

So what are you offering Nigerian families whose children are suffering from these disorders?

The treatment would be how people come in for sooner check-ups, being able to test quickly, support quickly. People always ask whether autism has a cure and my answer is no.  It is not about curing autism but about strategizing so by the time the individual is at certain age, it may not be identified that the individual suffered autism.  The whole idea is being able to diagnose sooner. We have a foundation that even as much as we charge for the work we do, the foundation also supports people who cannot afford the bill.

What challenges do you foresee coming into Nigeria?

The biggest challenge is segregation and having people to understand that segregation is not necessary and it is not the solution. I understand that those with autism here have supporting partners, which is not the answer. The answer is building independence and teaching the skills. There is also the religious, as well as spiritual myth, where many tend to think it has something to do with some forces that are after them; hence many focus more on dealing with it as such as opposed to focusing on proper care and training of the child. Our goal is to gradually change all of these and provide better understanding of the issue.

What is the role of the parents in assisting the society in controlling autism and similar cases?

I tell everybody that parents have the number one role and the big part of what I do is to train parents .The child with autism spends more time with the parents, so it is important to train parents and siblings so that everyone is on the same page and strategy and that is what we call intensive support. When there is intensive support, changes occur quickly.

From your research, what percentage of Nigerian children are suffering from these disorders

The number has grown considerably over the years. In my clinics the number was small initially but in the early year 2000 when autism became prevalent, that number grew to about 15 percent. Now it has grown to about 35 percent. I now receive a lot more calls in the US from Nigerians who want to bring their children over.

What is the effect of autism and other neurological disorders on the productive capacity of economies?

Autism is a neurological disorder that affects and impacts the social and communication skills. We are building a generation to be employable.  They don’t need to be a burden to the society. Economically, it will be an asset to have everyone with controlled autism and intellectual disability have jobs and after their education.