'Learners with disabilities are not third-class citizens' - Panyaza Lesufi
2 April 2019
Five years ago, Gauteng had one autism-specific unit at the Charlotte Maxeke hospital in Johannesburg.
But, speaking at the launch of Autism Month at the CSIR International Convention Centre in Pretoria on Tuesday, Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi said the province now has 13 autism units at different schools.
The event was attended by learners who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and their parents.
It aimed to raise awareness about ASD, its effects on learners and how to offer support to autistic children and their parents.
"It is with a heavy heart that I am addressing you for the last time in my capacity as the MEC for education in the province.
"Four years ago, I convened the team. I told them I met a woman from Autism SA, she stopped me and said: 'Do you know what autism is?'" Lesufi told guests.
A newly appointed Lesufi did not have the answers at the time.
"She took it upon herself to give me material and introduced me to institutions working with autism.
"I told my team we must change. The learners with disabilities are not third-class citizens - they are actually first. They must be provided with care and support," Lesufi added.
In 2014, the system accommodated 750 learners. Today, it takes care of 1 097 pupils.
The department has also reduced the waiting period for its autism units from five years to six months.
"From where we are coming to where we are, it might be a snail's pace, but at least we are going somewhere.
"I am leaving a unit with a multimillion-rand budget to attend to this sector. I am leaving 1 000 people who have the capacity and are trained to deal with autism. It is indeed an emotional but very important day," Lesufi added.
Gerhard Pienaar, the parent of Aiden Pienaar who was diagnosed with ASD in Grade 5, thanked the department for its support.
"It is very important on a day like this to realise that there are people with challenges. We should support them and not look down on them.
"Thank you for looking after our children because they are special," he said.
Autism Awareness Day is an internationally recognised day commemorated on April 2 every year.