Why Tanzania is set to host the International Conference for Autism

TANZANIA: In 1911, when German Psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler coined the concept of autism to describe a symptom of the most severe cases of schizophrenia, a concept he had also created, nobody had it in mind that people with the ailment would be associated with social communication and interaction.

As time went by the World Autism Organisation (abbreviated WAO) was initiated and as an international organization it was dedicated to improving the quality of life of people with autism and their families.

Since then a lot has occurred and on 2nd-3rd December, Tanzania is set to host the International Conference for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders (ICAN) at the Julius Nyerere International Convention Centre (JNICC), Dar es Salaam.

The milestone event was organized jointly by Victorious Centre of Excellence and Autism Connect. Victorious Centre of Excellence is an organization that provides extensive rehabilitation therapy services and extracurricular activities to individuals with autism spectrum disorders in Tanzania with the goal to successfully include them into the communities through focused efforts to create social awareness.

Equally, Autism Connect is an International organization committed to creating awareness, providing education and facilitating comprehensive care for individuals with Autism around the world.

Their joint effort will present the two-day conference, which will aim to raise awareness about Autism and provide a platform for professionals and experts from around the world to share experiences and discuss recent developments in the field.

The conference to be graced by the Minister of Health, Ummy Mwalimu, will automatically add the strong peace and cooperation the government is presenting to woo foreigners, especially academicians to run such workshop and conferences in the country.

Speaking to reporters in Dar es Salaam, yesterday, Sarah Laiser, Director of Victorious Center of Excellence and ICAN Chairperson, expressed her excitement about the conference, stating: “We are excited to host ICAN, as it provides a special opportunity for medical professionals to connect with their colleagues in dealing with Autism from all corners of the world.”

She added: “The conference aims to facilitate the exchange of ideas and clinical results between parents and professionals, ultimately leading to better care for individuals on the Autism Spectrum.”

Tanzania has been chosen as the host for ICAN due to the unique challenges Africa faces in dealing with Autism, according to the organisers.

“The rising incidence of Autism is a pressing concern, with recent research from the USA’s Center for Diseases Control (CDC) there is a startling finding that 1 in 36 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. In Tanzania and across Africa, cases have surged over the last two decades, presenting significant challenges. Children affected by autism encounter hurdles in communication, lack speech, face barriers in education, and often exhibit hyperactive and aggressive behaviors,” she pointed out.

According to Ms Laiser, the challenges are further exacerbated by the lack of awareness and cultural beliefs surrounding Autism in Africa. “In light of these hurdles, ICAN represents hope for our children.

“This conference is not just an event; it is a catalyst for change, illuminating the path toward a brighter future for individuals on the Autism Spectrum. Together, we can embrace this opportunity, working hand in hand to bring hope, support, and expertise to those who need it most.’’ She said.

The conference will bring together professionals from Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda, as well as delegates from various parts of the world.

Further cccording to Ms Laiser, the unique event is an excellent opportunity for professionals to highlight their work, exchange knowledge, and network with peers who are driving progress in Autism research and care.

“Parents of special needs children from different parts of the world will have the chance to learn about the ground breaking work being done in their own countries and globally,” she said.

Ms Dolly Thakkar, Chief Operating Officer of Autism Connect, added, “At ICAN, the newest and latest research developments happening all over the world, as well as new treatments for Autism, will be discussed. This conference will provide a unique platform for scientific and medical discussion, with the final beneficiaries being the children on the Autism Spectrum.”

According to Ms. Thakkar, the conference will also feature distinguished guest speakers from various countries including Tanzania, Kenya, India, United States of America (USA), South Africa, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“The good thing is, the Minister of Health, Ummy Mwalimu , will grace the conference and her attendance clearly signifies the government’s commitment and support in improving the lives of individuals with Autism,” she said.

In a nutshell, Autism spectrum is a disorder that impacts the nervous system. The range and severity of symptoms can vary widely. Common symptoms include difficulty with communication, difficulty with social interactions, obsessive interests and repetitive behaviours. Early recognition, as well as behavioural, educational and family therapies may reduce symptoms and support development and learning.

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