July 22 – 27 marks an important period for children with autism, their parents, teachers, caregivers, and religious leaders in St Lucia. From Monday July 22 to Thursday July 25, a summer camp will be held at the Dunnottar School.
The Camp targets 30 children with autism with complex additional issues or behavioural concerns. Therapists from St Lucia and abroad will work with these 30 children and their teachers and parents on how to manage this disorder so helping the child to reach their full potential. During that same week, workshops will be held for religious leaders who will learn strategies for managing autism in the church. The week will culminate with a conference at the St Joseph’s Convent on Saturday, July 27. The conference targets parents, educators and caregivers of individuals with autism.
The Autism Summer Camp (the first of its kind to take place in St Lucia) and this second autism awareness conference are organised by the Saint Lucia Autism Awareness Project (whose lead coordinator is Dr. Delia Samuel), together with Dr. Kim Gardner of the Child Development and Guidance Center (CDGC).
Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a group of developmental disabilities that can significantly affect a person’s social, communicative and behavioural skills. ASD is characterised by persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction, and restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests and activities. Individuals with this disorder experience a wide range of symptoms and levels of disabilities – thus, the term “spectrum”.
In 2018, 1 in 59 children were identified with ASD in the United States. In St Lucia, 75 children were formally diagnosed with ASD at CDGC as of March 2019. Additionally, another 22 have social communication difficulties and are in the process of evaluation and diagnosis. CDGC is the only multi-disciplinary Paediatric development assessment and intervention centre in St Lucia. It was established because of the need for early identification and intervention of children with developmental delays. The team at CDGC has so far assessed more than 2000 children and continue to receive increasing numbers of referrals. In 2018, 356 children were referred to CDGC for assessment. There are currently no paediatric speech and language therapists and paediatric occupational therapists in St Lucia. Therapists usually come from abroad and lend their services to provide the much-needed intervention for individuals with ASD.
The first Autism Awareness conference took place at St Joseph’s Convent on October 17, 2015 and its resounding success marked the beginning of many opportunities opening up for the children with autism, their parents and educators. Since the conference, the number of persons seeking a diagnosis has substantially increased and more children have been diagnosed with autism. However, there is still much to be done to continue spreading awareness in St Lucia. Parents and caregivers who are faced with this disorder need continued support and assistance especially as they experience feelings of doubt, confusion, guilt, anger and hopelessness. Presently many parents of individuals with autism are going through periods of despair and depression because of their inability to cope with that challenge. What makes it even more difficult for them is that they do not receive the adequate support and resources that they so desperately need. Educators also require significant support in order to effectively educate and manage individuals with ASD. In addition, religious leaders need to learn strategies for managing individuals with ASD in their congregations and how they can better serve them.
The intervention and support needed by children with autism and their parents, as well as other persons playing significant roles in their lives will be provided at this Autism Camp and Conference.