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Nine myths about autism debunked

In some parts of Africa, autism is often compounded by cultural stigma, the causes in many cases attributed to the supernatural.

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Photo credit: Spectrum

Re-examining how we approach those with differently-wired brains

World Autism Awareness Day promotes world-wide acceptance and celebration of autism spectrum disorder, emphasizing positive, realistic identities of people with ASD.

In some parts of Africa, autism is often compounded by cultural stigma, the causes in many cases attributed to the supernatural. For example, one survey of Nigerian healthcare workers’ opinion, carried out by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, showed that 40% of nurses across four institutions in Nigeria attribute autism to spiritual factors.

Such attitudes prevent early diagnosis and access to adequate support, since help is often first sought out from religious leaders or traditional healers rather than a medical practitioner.

To help put an end to common misconceptions, here are nine myths about autism, together with an explanation of the realities.  

Myth no. 1 – Autism is a mental illness

Reality – Autism is a neurobehavioral developmental disorder characterised by challenges with social interaction and communication. It is not considered a mental illness.

Myth no. 2 – People with autism are intellectually disabled

Reality – 44% of people diagnosed with autism have average or above average intellectual abilities and some may excel at math, music or another pursuit. While there are some individuals for whom learning is difficult, and for whom progress will be slow, autism can bring with it just as many exceptional abilities as challenges.

Myth no. 3 – People with autism are all alike in their symptoms

Reality – Autism is a spectrum disorder ranging in severity and the challenges posed by each autistic individual are very different.

Myth no. 4 – Children with autism are disobedient kids

Reality – Children with autism may seem disobedient because of their struggle with communication and social skills, which may make it difficult to interact with peers or understand instructions.

Myth no. 5 – Autism is caused by bad parenting

Reality – In the 1950s, a theory called the “refrigerator mother hypothesis” arose suggesting that autism was caused by mothers who lacked emotional warmth. This has long been disproved.

So, while bad parenting does not aid any child’s development, it will not cause autism.

Myth no. 6 – Autism is caused by vaccination

Reality – There is no scientific evidence to support this belief. Autism is complex and seems to be caused by many different combinations of genes and environmental influences.

Myth no. 7 – People with autism don’t feel or express emotions

Reality – Autism does not prevent an individual from feeling and expressing the same kind of emotions you feel, it just makes the individual communicate his or her emotions (and perceive your expressions) in different ways.

Myth no. 8 – Autism only affects children.

Reality – Children with autism grow up to become adults with autism.

Myth no. 9 – There is a cure for autism

Reality – There is no medication that can cure ASD or treat the core symptoms. While some behavioral-based programs may have positive effects on some children with ASD, these need to be carefully tailored to the child, as all children with ASD will have their own needs and learning styles

Additional facts

  • Autism is present in all racial, ethnic and socio-economic groups.
  • Autism is 4.5 times more common in boys than in girls.
  • Children born to parents of an older age are at a greater risk for autism spectrum disorder.

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Nigeria and South Africa’s economic woes hindering African phone sales growth

The drop largely reflects both countries economic struggles with sluggish growth and widespread unemployment.

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Nigeria and South Africa’s economic woes hindering African phone sales growth
(File photo)

The numbers are falling for the first quarter of 2019 in mobile phone shipments to two of Africa’s largest economies – and numbers for the current quarter do not look promising.

Market report by International Data Corporation (IDC) indicate that while smartphone shipments to Nigeria dropped 11.9 per cent to 2.3 million units in the first quarter from a year earlier, the overall phone shipments for South Africa dipped by 4 per cent to 4.7 million units.

The drop largely reflects both countries economic struggles with sluggish growth and widespread unemployment. Nigeria, in particular, was hit in the first quarter by a three-week embargo on shipments of phone brands from China into the country and further worsened by widespread insecurity as well as the one-week delay of the general election.

The Nigerian economy grew marginally by 2 per cent in the three months to March 3st1, far off a target around twice that pace.

With annualised rate of 3.2 per cent in the first quarter, South Africa’s economy shrank to one of its lowest. This was attributable to the challenges of overstocking after a robust fourth quarter.

Consequent upon this, Research Analyst at IDC, Arnold Ponela suggests that the African market is expected to see a continued dominance of “low-end to mid-range devices” as “cheaper phones offering better value will increasingly dominate the market.”

This offers a bright side for Chinese phone maker, Transsion Holdings which has a manufacturing factory in Ethiopia. After over a decade of establishing its business model by focusing mainly on African markets and producing cheaper smartphones with locally-tailored features (such as multiple SIM slots and camera technology calibrated to darker skin tones), the Shenzhen, China-headquartered company dominates the African mobile phone market and offers a broad spectrum of affordable phone brands.

Over time, those brands have evolved from being less-fancied to becoming ubiquitous among local customers, and eventually surpassing Samsung as the top smartphone seller across the continent in 2017.

Transsion leveraged its gain on the continent, even as the continent’s biggest markets slow down. It accounted for the largest smartphone shipments to Africa in the first quarter with Tecno and Itel, two of its leading brands, combining for around a third of total market share, IDC’s report shows.

Its dominance also extends to feature phones as Tecno and Itel jointly hold a 59.7 per cent share of Africa’s feature phone shipments. A predicted consumer preference for lower priced smartphones suggests it will continue to dominate.

However, feature phone shipments to Africa were flat year over year at 0.3 per cent in the first quarter, with shipments topping 31.6 million units. The African market is still dominated by feature phones, with about 60 per cent market share.

IDC forecasts overall mobile phone market sales to decline by 5.3 per cent to about 51 million units in the second quarter due to sharp downswing in macroeconomic and global trade fortunes across the continent.

IDC research manager, Ramazan Yavuz concludes that “another factor is the rise of protectionist measures aimed at controlling smartphone shipments in multiple countries, which causes sudden short-term swings in the market’s performance”.

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Sand Miners threaten Morocco’s coastline

The looters come in the middle of the night, mainly in the low season

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an Abandonned sand miners village

Beneath an apartment block that looms over Monica beach in the western coastal city of Mohammedia, a sole sand dune has escaped the clutches of Morocco’s insatiable construction contractors. Here, like elsewhere across the North African tourist magnet, sand has been stolen to help feed an industry that is growing at full tilt.

A report last month by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) on the global over-exploitation of this resource accuses “sand mafias” of destroying Morocco’s beaches and over-urbanising its coastline. “The dunes have disappeared along the entire city’s coastline,” lamented environmental activist Jawad, referring to Mohammedia, on the Atlantic between Rabat and Casablanca.

The 33-year-old environmental activist leads Anpel, a local NGO dedicated to coastal protection. “At this rate, we’ll soon only have rocks” left, chipped in Adnane, a member of the same group. More than half the sand consumed each year by Morocco’s construction industry – some 10 million cubic metres – is extracted illegally, according to UNEP.

“The looters come in the middle of the night, mainly in the low season,” said a local resident in front of his grand home on the Monica seafront. “But they do it less often now because the area is full of people. In any case, there is nothing more to take,” added the affable resident.

Sand accounts for four fifths of the makeup of concrete and – after water – is the world’s second most consumed resource. Beaches and rivers are heavily exploited across the planet, legally and illegally, according to UNEP.

Official complicity

In Morocco, “sand is often removed from beaches to build hotels, roads and other tourism-related infrastructure”, according to UNEP. Beaches are therefore shrinking, resulting in coastal erosion.

“Continued construction is likely to lead to destruction of the main natural attraction for visitors – beaches themselves,” the report warned. Theft of sand from beaches or coastal dunes in Morocco is punishable by five years in prison. Siphoned away by donkey, delivery bike and large trucks, the beaches are being stripped from north to south, along a coastline that runs from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic.

“On some beaches, the sand has nearly disappeared” in parts of the north, said an ecological activist in Tangiers.  “There has been enormous pressure on the beaches of Tangiers because of real estate projects,” he continued.

To the south, the UNEP report noted, “sand smugglers have transformed a large beach into a rocky landscape” between Safi and Essaouira. Activist Jawad points to “small scale looting, like here in Mohammedia”. But, “then there is the intensive and structured trafficking by organised networks, operating with the complicity of some officials”.

While the sand mafias operate as smugglers, “key personalities – lawmakers or retired soldiers – hand out permits allowing them to over-exploit deposits, without respect for quotas”, he added.

Organised mafia

A licensed sand dredger spoke of “a very organised mafia that pays no taxes” selling sand that is “neither washed nor desalinated”, and falls short of basic building regulations. These mafia outfits have “protection at all levels… they pay nothing at all because they do everything in cash”, this operator added, on condition of anonymity.

“A lot of money is laundered through this trade”. A simple smartphone helps visualise the extent of the disaster. Via a Google Earth map, activist Adnane showed a razed coastal forest, where dunes have given way to a lunar landscape, some 200 kilometres south of Casablanca.  

Eyes fixed on the screen, he carefully scrutinised each parcel of land. “Here, near Safi, they have taken the sand over (a stretch of) seven kilometres. It was an area exploited by a retired general, but there is nothing left to take,” he alleged. Adnane pointed to another area – exploited, he said, by a politician who had a permit for “an area of two hectares”.

But instead, he “took kilometres” of sand. Environmental protection was earmarked as a priority by Morocco, in a grandiose statement after the country hosted the 2016 COP22 international climate conference. Asked about measures to fight uncontrolled sand extraction, secretary of state for energy Nezha El Ouafi pointed to “a national coastal protection plan (that) is in the process of being validated”.

The plan promises “evaluation mechanisms, with protection programmes and (a) high status”, she said. Meanwhile, environmental activists are pleading against the “head in the sand approach” over the scale of coastal devastation.

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Malawi’s gay community – a tale of fear and stigma

Most Malawians are Christian or Muslim, with religious education that often describes homosexuality as taboo or a sin.

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Malawi's gay community - a tale of fear and stigma

Fearing persecution after being outed as gay, Adil fled Malawi.

Leaving behind his well-off Muslim family and four-year-old son, he headed for South Africa, where he became a sex worker to survive.

“The laws that we have in Malawi are incriminating. I wanted to get away from here. I had to take my chances,” the 29-year-old told AFP. His full name is withheld for fear of homophobic retribution.

For two years Adil laboured as a male sex worker in the tough streets of downtown Johannesburg, eventually returning home.

His case highlights the problems in Malawi, a holdout in southern Africa where legal liberalisation for gays is otherwise gaining speed.

Botswana this week joined Angola, Mozambique, Seychelles and South Africa on the path towards decriminalising homosexuality, with a verdict by its High Court to scrap decades-old anti-gay laws.

These landmark cases “set an important framework… which will hopefully be emulated elsewhere in Africa,” Anneke Meerkotter of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) told AFP.

But “hopefully” is the key word. Elsewhere on the continent, the picture is quite different.

Last month, Kenya’s High Court upheld laws punishing “carnal knowledge… against the order of nature” by up to 14 years in jail. Chad and Uganda have also introduced or toughened legislation.

‘Unnatural offence’

In Malawi, a conservative religious country, the situation seems particularly entrenched, say campaigners.

Its penal code expressly criminalises same-sex relations as an “unnatural offence”, punishable by up to 14 years in prison. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) last October said Malawi’s laws fuelled a climate of fear, arbitrary arrest, violence and discrimination against gays. Many young people, like Adil, are cast out of their families because of their sexual orientation.

Gay rights burst into the news in 2010 when a couple was jailed for gross indecency after holding the country’s first same-sex public “wedding”.

Then president Bingu wa Mutharika said the pair had committed a crime against Malawi’s culture, religion and laws. He later pardoned them on “humanitarian grounds” after a meeting with the UN secretary general.

When Joyce Banda succeeded him as president in 2012, she promised widespread reforms to the colonial-era legislation and even announced a moratorium on arrests for those breaking laws that criminalise consensual same-sex conduct.  

‘Ignored’

But after Banda lost a 2014 bid to stay on as president, these gains were reversed, say campaigners.

Under Bingu wa’s brother Peter Mutharika, who recently won his second presidential term in office, “this group of people have just tended to be ignored,” gender activist Beatrice Mateyo said.

Activists have been waiting since 2013 for the courts to set a date for a hearing to repeal the anti-gay laws.

“Malawi has several court cases that are lying in the courts and we hope the case scenario of Botswana is also going to inform the legal processes here in Malawi,” Gift Trapence, head of Malawian rights group Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP) told AFP.

Mateyo believes religious conservatism has played a core part in perpetuating stereotypes and anti-gay hostility.

Most of the 18 million people in Malawi are Christian or Muslim, whose religious education often describes homosexuality as taboo or a sin.

In 2016, about 3,000 Christians marched through Blantyre and Lilongwe, carrying signs saying “Homosexuality is abomination”. 

“We are seen as a God-fearing nation, so society tends to skew towards religion where you are seen as a sinner… And if you are of a different sexuality then you are perceived as a sinner,” Mateyo said.

People who are not heterosexual, “will rather remain in the closet — hidden.”

“For the very few people that are open, life is very difficult because people tend to label them.”

‘Just want to be safe’

Twenty-eight-year-old Sarah, a lesbian who is also intersex, meaning there is no self-assignment to gender, said everyday tasks in Malawi were like walking on eggshells.

“I’m scared of being attacked, even in public spaces,” said Sarah. “You go to the bank, they look at your ID… you have to prove that you’re this particular sex that was assigned to you at birth.”

Sarah has a three-month-old relationship with a local woman but said, “I cannot take her to the local market to buy vegetables because that’s going to start another issue.”

CEDP, working with activists, set up four drop-in centres in Lilongwe, Blantyre, Mzuzu and Mangochi in 2016.

Equipped with a recreation room, gym, large kitchen, medical centre and 24-hour security, the centres support around 2,000 people.

“When we are here, we know each other,” a 27 year-old carpenter who declined to be named told AFP at the centre, his partner seated next to him.

Once a week, he walks 30 kilometres (20 miles) to the Lilongwe drop-in house to collect condoms, thus escaping condemnation by people in his neighbourhood.

Adil returned to Malawi after contracting HIV in South Africa. He was unable to stay there because as an illegal, he had no access to treatment.

The centre has been a haven of hope in Malawi, he said.

“In this space you can wear whatever you want, you can feel any way you want because this is the only safe space that you have.” 

“But out there it is hard.”

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