‘A WALK IS NOT ENOUGH’: Donnella Rodriguez-Laird, speech pathologist who has joined with a few of her friends to host Autism Month activities locally in April. —Photo: Ishmael Salandy

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Bringing awareness to autism

By Essiba Small essiba.small@trinidadexpress.com

For years Autism Month in Trinidad and Tobago was celebrated with a walk around the Savannah. 

Last year Donnella Rodriguez-Laird joined the walk but went home feeling unfulfilled.

For this speech and language pathologist there was a lot about autism that the public couldn’t derive from a mere walk. She wanted to see more done to bring awareness to the disorder.

“I wanted people to really get it. I wanted them to know that a walk was not enough.”

At the start of the year Rodriguez-Laird got together with friends to do a Light It Up Blue campaign that will include three main activities .

“Light It Up Blue is a global initiative that has raised awareness worldwide” Rodriguez-Laird said.

“Blue represents autism. Through the Light It Up Blue campaign, 3000 structures across the world including the Empire State Building, New York and the Sydney Opera House, Australia. They have been all lit in blue.”

Rodriguez-Laird thought why not here. So she approached TGI Fridays which, along with KFC, Subway and Pizza Hut , will put on blue lights at some of their restaurants as a support for the campaign.

Autism fact sheets will also be available at these restaurants, Rodriguez-Laird said, to build public awareness.

Today, an autism workshop, titled The Missing Puzzle Piece, is scheduled to take place at Cascadia Hotel and features Dr Jasmine Ramcharan and Dr Prith Bahadursingh — developmental paediatricians; and a sensory-friendly film showing of the movies The Muppets Most Wanted and Rio at MovieTowne.

“The people at MovieTowne have promised to turn down the volume at the cinema on that day, turn on the lights and let the children just be themselves. They can feel free to sing, dance and walk around and just be themselves.”

Autism, a complex developmental disability that appears during the first three years of life, is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain. It now affects 1 in 88 children in the world. Figures in Trinidad and Tobago are yet to be made available.

According to Rodriguez-Laird, the disorder can manifest itself in children as young as 18 months. Some early tell-tale signs include lack of eye contact when being fed, no response to his or her name to the sound of a familiar voice, the child does not follow objects visually, the child doesn’t make noises to get your attention, the child does not initiate or respond to cuddling. 

Daily Rodriguez-Laird’s interacts with autistic children either in her office on the Western Main Road, St James, or at her Right Start Early Intervention space next door.

Her passion is not just to bring awareness of the disorder to the wider public but to help the children at Right Start to achieve milestones they wouldn’t usually have.

“Of the eight children I have, six of them are non-verbal. They don’t talk but they use photographs to say what they want.

“I have two who are echolalic — they repeat everything I say.”

It’s usual for people who don’t understand autistic children to label them as disruptive; but as Rodriguez-Laird has proven with her programme, once the right environment is created for these children they will achieve their goals.

“You just have to use what they like to motivate them.”

Rodriguez-Laird has seen some of her children move on to mainstream schools after graduating from her Right Start Early Intervention programme.

No matter how much progress autistic children make, they still have their own quirkiness — just like the rest of us.

Rodriguez-Laird would like to parents, teachers in mainstream and therapists to come out to the workshop to learn more about autism and meet the experts who deal with the disorder.

“I want parents to know that they don’t have to go to overseas to get help for their autistic child; the help is right here. “

Even more than the children, the parents of autistic children  have the hardest time, Rodriguez-Laird said.

“They get all the blame for having “out of control” children, as autistic children are often labelled.

“I want to see more understanding of autism and the children who have the disorder. I also want to see more Right Start Early Intervention programmes being implemented across the country. In fact that is my dream.”

Right Start for Autism is on Facebook.

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