As we observed World Autism Awareness Day on Sunday, what dawned on many is that there is today a need to break stigma associated with special needs people. Diagnosis and treatment for many families become difficult because of stigma and shame.

According to reports, there are 82 children in the country today who are diagnosed with autism. We believe that there are many more suffering from the deleterious effects of this neurodevelopmental disorder, one of the common disabilities in children.

It is, therefore, critically important that as members of the society we should encourage early diagnosis and early intervention. Because infant brains are impressionable we can with timely interventions capitalise on the potential of learning that an infant brain has and help them lead better lives.  It is our responsibility to provide them with meaningful curriculum and help them become productive members of the society.

It has been found that intensive early intervention is appropriate and helpful for children with autism. Paediatricians elsewhere recommend that all 18- and 24-month-old children be screened for autism so that parents can be offered effective therapies for children in this age range. If diagnosis is done early, we can hope to maximise the positive impact of the interventions.

What we must understand is that stigma keeps families away from seeking a diagnosis and treatment services for their children. Treating children with autism as burdens to the society takes away from us that small window of opportunity to help them be productive citizens and equal partners. Stigma also keeps parents and families of affected children from participating fully in their communities and enjoying the same quality of life as others in the neighbourhood. Research has found that child’s autistic behaviours, combined with social stigma and isolation, make parents’ lives more challenging. Such reality could have huge impact on the country’s public health.

It is absolutely important, therefore, to create greater and more accessible platforms for parents to share skills and knowledge that will enable them to provide better care to their children. Family empowerment forum could be a space were health experts and parents could map out centre-based, home-based and school-based interventions for children living with diverse abilities.

The real step must begin with breaking stigma. Interventions could be difficult otherwise.