In the cradle of our ancestors, Cameroon, autism is an unappreciated reality when it is not kept in the drawers of the sorcerer or witchcraft. The need for awareness proves urgent given the veils of witchcraft and “evil” which are tagged on people suffering from this disease.
Witchcraft and bad luck. In Cameroon, autism is attributed to nothing other than something mysterious and paranormal. Here, people suffering from this disorder witness great social adversity and discrimination and walk with big social rejection stamps on their foreheads the same way AIDS patients do. In an attempt to create awareness on this disease, the United Nations established a World Autism Awareness Day. According to the UN, autism is a lifelong developmental disability that manifests itself during the first three years of life and is the result of a neurological dysfunction compromising the functioning of the brain. It mainly affects children regardless of race or socioeconomic status in many countries and is often characterized by impaired social interactions and verbal or nonverbal communication as well as retricted, repetitive or stereotyped behavior.
Although the Cameroonian government is strongly committed to impart information and awareness regarding autism as a health problem to the population, their efforts are usually seen as mischievous ploys to embezzle public funds. Consequently, many Cameroonians still believe that the disease is of a superstitious nature and origin.
Junior, for example is a 16 year old boy living in Yaoundé with his parents and autistic since the age of 3. Although his appearance reflects good physical health, clear manifestations of the disease were only depicted when he was three years old; an age when a child normally starts exercising verbal skills. Today, it is evident that he and his parents have gone through quite an ordeal. Sadly, he is often kept in the confines of the family home with little or no social interaction due to the undesired attention and mockery his condition attracts. From the onset his behavior was considered abnormal by the members of his family and his parents toured across the national triangle to various traditional chapels and other healers in an effort to deliver the child from the “bondages of witchcraft”. These attempts have however proven to be unsuccessful over the years and his mother has since retreated to prayers in the hope of obtaining God´s divine intervention.
Indeed, because of the mistake and the disrepute of autism as a disease resulting from a neurological dysfunction, according to the UN, the high percentage of cases of autism in children around the world has a terrible impact on their lives and their families. In Cameroon, people with this developmental disorder are often discriminated against and see their human dignity violated; serious enough to flay the sensitivity of human rights and commit moral crime. In fact, if we consider this condition in terms of superstition, there is enough to see these people as not ordinary people, not people like everyone else, but victims of paranormal influences. The parents and families of these patients are therefore covered with lifelong shame and stress, which exposes them not only to insults and mockery but also to extortion by traditional healers and pastors who grab these opportunities to point accusing fingers at innocent family members. It is therefore not surprising to find that in every Cameroonian family with an autistic child, an uncle, aunt, grandfather or even father is looked upon as being responsible for the genesis of the patient´s condition.
For the United Nations however, the major problems affecting these families are the lack of adequate resources for the establishment of appropriate health facilities in developing countries like ours to educate people. Like AIDS, stigma and discrimination which then associate themselves in such societies constitute important barriers to diagnosis and treatment.
Diagnosing the “evil” therefore appears as one of the most important steps. But this diagnosis requires the active participation of parents and how else can they be motivated to do so, if not through relentless media campaigns. The media is a powerful tool in every developing and developed country and will definitely attract the necessary attention this condition needs to be given in our society. Intensified outreach campaigns and awareness of autism appears to be increasing necessary, as one child out of 50 in Cameroon is autistic. This will help improve consciousness and identify victims through free consultations. In my opinion, campaigns are not given the right input and must first be as a result of political will. Our government must be able to show that its commitments do not remain theoretical but also practical before people actually start believing them.