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The 4-year-old Cote d’Ivoire boy couldn’t walk, speak or feed himself. He was so unlike most other kids that his grandparents hesitated to accept him. The slightly older Kenyan boy was so restless that his primary-school teachers beat him, until they discovered he was a star pupil.
The two children reveal different faces of autism — and how society sometimes reacts to the condition.
Videos of the boys appear in “Autism: Breaking the Silence,” a special edition of VOA’s weekly Straight Talk Africa TV program. It was recorded Wednesday before a small studio audience of people who live with the condition or deal with it professionally.
The program’s goal: to help demystify and deepen understanding of autism spectrum disorder. It affects the brain’s normal development, often compromising an individual’s ability to communicate, interact socially or control behavior. The condition can range from mild to severe.
New CDC findings
New findings released this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate an increase in autism’s prevalence in the United States.
The agency estimates it affects 1 in 59 children, up from 1 in 68 several years ago and 1 in 150 almost two decades ago. The research is based on studies of more than 300,000 8-year-olds in 11 U.S. states.
Globally, one out of every 160 children has an autism spectrum disorder, the World Health Organization reports. Rates of autism are harder to determine in low- and middle-income countries, including those in sub-Saharan Africa with limited access to clinicians.
Everywhere, “poor people get diagnosed later,” Scott Badesch, president of the Autism Society of America, said in a video overview that set the stage for discussion. “… There’s more services today than ever before but there’s nowhere near the services needed for all who need help.”
A complex condition
Stigma and superstition can heighten the challenges.
In parts of Africa, youngsters with autism “are labeled as devils and they’re not diagnosed and they are not given treatment,” Bernadette Kamara, a native of Sierra Leone who runs BK Behavioral Health Center in a Washington suburb, commented from the audience.
Some people believe the disorder is punishment for a parent’s bad behavior or an affliction that can be prayed away, said Mary Amoah, featured with 15-year-old daughter Renata in a related VOA video.
“They don’t understand this is purely a medical condition. It can happen to anyone regardless of your background,” said Amoah, coordinator at a treatment center in Accra, Ghana, for children with disabilities. “A lot needs to be done in our part of the world in terms of education, acceptance and understanding.”
Researchers haven’t determined the exact cause of autism, though they cite genetic and environmental factors.
Panelist Susan Daniels, who directs the office of autism research coordination for the National Institute of Mental Health, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, stressed that research supported by the NIH and CDC shows no link to childhood vaccines.
Though the condition has no cure, early intervention can improve the quality of life for people with autism and their families.
Parents need to observe their children closely from infancy, advised Dr. Usifo Edward Asikhia, clinical director of the International Training Center for Applied Behavior Analysis in Lagos, Nigeria.
“When you have a baby at the age of 12 [months] that cannot babble, that’s a signal,” he said. Another is an inability to grasp objects, a sign of low muscle tone common in autism.
Other hallmarks include lack of eye contact or sensitivity to sounds, Daniels said. She added that a definitive diagnosis “can’t really be done accurately until age 2. But most kids aren’t diagnosed by then.”
“Children with autism in Africa tend to be diagnosed around age 8, about four years later, on average, than their American counterparts,” the Spectrum Autism Research News site reported in December.
Call for cultural sensitivity
Some of those indicators could mislead when assessing African children, said panelist Morenike Giwa Onaiwu, a Texas-based member of the Autism Women’s Network.
“In a lot of African cultures, it’s customary not to make direct eye contact. That’s not a red flag,” said Onaiwu, whose parents came from Nigeria and who learned she was autistic only when two of her own six kids were positively identified with autism. “In terms of not babbling? We speak when we have something to say. … Certain things culturally may be missed because of the way diagnostic criteria are viewed through Western standards.”
While autism generally is associated with low IQ, the condition also affects people with high mental abilities.
If they can “express themselves in some way, they’re actually geniuses,” said panelist Tracy Freeman, a Washington-area physician who has an autistic child. “Their challenge is neurodiversity and getting people to recognize their intelligence.”
At one point in the discussion, moderator Linord Moudou noticed Onaiwu twisting a metal coil in her hands. Onaiwu explained that the repurposed Christmas ornament is a “stimming” device for repetitive motion that provides relaxing sensory stimulation.
“It helps to calm me,” Onaiwu said. She has other strategies: “Sometimes you might see me rocking. … This kind of helps me to navigate in the neurotypical world.”
Growing role for governments?
Asikhia said families dealing with autism had few public supports in Nigeria or elsewhere in Africa. Most schools lack training in developmental delays that should be flagged for physicians, he said.
“Those teachers just don’t know what to do,” he added.
Many African countries lack laws ensuring public education or health interventions for youngsters with autism or other developmental disorders.
But Chiara Servili, a child neuropsychiatrist and WHO technical adviser on mental health, sees rising interest. Representatives of more than 60 countries supported a 2014 WHO resolution urging member nations to develop policies and laws to ease “the global burden of mental disorders” and to devote “sufficient human, financial and technical resources.”
Many governments once focused just on improving child mortality rates, she said in a phone interview. Now, there’s “much more awareness not only that they survive but thrive. There is a new focus on early childhood development.”
The WHO is trying to improve supports for family caregivers as well as for teachers, social workers and other professionals in positions to encourage clinical evaluation, Servili said.
With international partners, the organization has developed a guide for caregivers, usually parents, to nurture children with developmental issues. For instance, “we teach them strategies so they can better engage children in play. Sit down at the level of the child. Provide some toys or some object from the house, observe what the child is doing and try to follow the lead,” Servili said. “… Reinforce any attempt to communicate.” (VOA)
Canadian researchers have discovered an overlooked gene that plays a major role in the development of antibodies, which help the immune system recognize and fight viruses including SARS-CoV-2, bacteria and other causes of infectious disease. The gene -- FAM72A -- facilitates production of high-quality antibodies by enabling the effect of an enzyme called AID (for Activation-Induced Deaminase), the researchers showed.
Immunologists have known for two decades that AID is essential to produce antibodies capable of clearing infections, but the full mechanism of its effect has remained unknown. "Our findings answer the long-standing question of how AID does its work," said Alberto Martin, a professor of immunology at the University of Toronto's Temerty Faculty of Medicine. "FAM72A helps AID to promote mutations in antibody genes that are essential for the development of effective antibodies," he added.
Genetic mutations that lead to lasting changes in DNA occur through a process called mutagenesis. | Pixabay
Genetic mutations that lead to lasting changes in DNA occur through a process called mutagenesis. In the context of antibody development, mutagenesis unfolds largely through the AID-driven mechanisms called somatic hypermutation and class switch recombination -- both of which help antibodies gain the diversity and potency they need to counter a wide range of pathogens.
The results published in the journal Nature will help researchers better understand antibody development broadly, but they also have implications for cancer. Uncontrolled mutagenesis in B cells that produce antibodies is linked to B cell lymphoma, and FAM72A is present at very high levels in other cancers such as gastrointestinal, breast, lung, liver and ovarian cancers.
"Our data show that high levels of FAM72A promote mutations in antibody genes, so increased levels of FAM72A could spur cancer development, progression or drug resistance by increasing mutagenesis,a Martin said. Martin's team is now exploring those possibilities. Intriguingly, unlike other mammals, humans have four gene versions of FAM72A and their roles in cancer and antibody production are still unknown. (IANS/ MBI)
Keywords: researchers, cancer, mutagenesis, antibody, development, antibodies, canada, COVID
Mahanadi Coalfields Limited (MCL), a subsidiary of Coal India will set up a 50 megawatt (MW) solar power plant in Odisha's Sambalpur at a total cost of Rs 301.92 crore, moving steadily towards its goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2024. MCL has placed a turnkey order to set-up a 50 MW solar power plant with a Chennai-based firm M/s Hild Energy Ltd, which will establish this green energy project within a timeline of 10 months, the MCL said in a statement on Saturday.
This solar plant would cater to the captive power requirement of MCL. The Central PSU had successfully set-up a 2MW solar power plant in Sambalpur in 2014. The company said it has pledged a target of installing 182 MW of solar power by 2024 in order to become a net zero energy company, aligning itself to use cleaner forms of energy for coal production.
The company said it has pledged a target of installing 182 MW of solar power by 2024. | Photo by Mariana Proença on Unsplash
This 50 MW solar power project will reduce CO2 emission by 91,020 tonnes per annum and carbon offsets of around 24,824 tonnes per annum, claimed the MCL. MCL is the leading production subsidiary of Coal India, having mining operations in Angul, Jharsuguda and Sundargarh districts of Odisha. Having achieved the highest ever capital expenditure of Rs 2,419 crore in the financial year 2020-21, the company has coal production and dispatch targets of 163 million tonnes and 182 million tonnes, respectively.
MCL was the coal mining company to introduce environment-friendly surface miner technology, which contributes over 95 per cent in coal production. As another environment-friendly initiative, the company has successfully introduced vertical rippers for blast-less over-burden removal in Hingula and Kaniha opencast projects. (IANS/ MBI)
Keywords: solar plant, carbon neutrality, Odisha, Sambalpur, Coal India, subsidiary, Mahanadi Coalfields Limited, solar energy
As the nation celebrated the 114th birth anniversary of his father - renowned poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan - megastar Amitabh Bachchan remembered his dad as he penned a heartfelt note for him. The actor took to his blog where he poured his heart out and also shared an unseen photo with his father. The image in question is from Big B's wedding in 1973, where the two are caught in a sweet moment as they look at each other.
Amitabh Bachchan wrote on his blog,
"My Father , my all .. November 27th his birth in the year 1907 .. Which makes it his 114th Anniversary .. He is in the heavens, with my Mother and they celebrate .. as do we , in thought word and deed .. (sic). But first."
He then posted the picture followed by elaborate paragraphs. The megastar wrote,
"Those rare moments when one would find himself rushing against the winds to prevent the distance between us and to close it down as soon as it can be. The day of my wedding and his expression of fulfilment to not just be in congratulation but instead to be in the face of a belief, a chime, an ultimate season of love and great passion, of the quarries of the fears and conditionings of these deprived gym routines kart ..(sic)". "This could have been unknown for long facilitating years, to give not expected versions and lastly large scale informations of the insides ; but as time passed by, as does now , they explained purposely, the values of education and similarity .. Be in peace and love .. (sic)",
the veteran actor concluded his note. (IANS/ MBI)
Keywords: Amitabh Bachchan, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, actor, blog, birth anniversary, 114th birthday