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Alumni Spotlight: Curbing Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in Africa

Researcher at work

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in Africa presents a complex landscape, often influenced by cultural beliefs, limited access to resources, and stigma. While awareness of autism is growing across the continent, many regions still lack adequate diagnostic facilities and specialized support services. Additionally, prevalent misconceptions about the condition often lead to social isolation and discrimination against individuals with autism and their families. Despite these challenges, grassroots initiatives and advocacy efforts are emerging, aiming to enhance understanding, provide support networks, and promote inclusivity for individuals with autism in African communities. However, significant strides are still needed to ensure equitable access to education, healthcare, and societal acceptance for those living with autism in Africa. One of the promising directions to improve the autism spectrum disorder detection is to build classification systems using intelligent digital technologies.

This April, as part of autism awareness month, the Africa Research Excellence Fund (AREF) is pleased to highlight the tremendous work of AREF alumnus Dr. Pacifique Ndishimye, who is a multidisciplinary biomedical scientist with a work experience underpinned by strong academic qualifications, including a PhD and Postdoctoral Fellowship in Life Sciences and Health Technologies. 

Furthermore, Dr. Pacifique is actively involved in the development and implementation of digital health technologies, harnessing the power of mobile applications, wearable devices, and data analytics to enhance healthcare delivery, disease surveillance, and health promotion efforts, particularly in resource-limited settings. His interdisciplinary approach, combined with a strong commitment to improving health outcomes globally, underscores his significant contributions to the field of global health and underscores his commitment to addressing complex health challenges with innovative solutions. Through the financial and mentorship support of AREF, Dr. Pacifique has initiated a research program aiming at developing a digital tool used for early screening of autism cases in Rwanda.

Following AREF’s support, Dr. Pacifique has been working with scientists and innovators mainly from Autisme Rwanda Center, Rwanda Biomedical Center, African Institute of Mathematical Sciences Rwanda and Stansile to develop a screening tool that at a preliminary phase provide individuals with the recognition of possible autistic traits. The developed app is available for devices running an Android operating system (iOS version is still ongoing) and is found in English, French, and Kinyarwanda languages. It currently includes a) A series of questions that help in gathering information on any possible autistic trait, and b) A real-time method that enables the end users to request an appointment for further assessments. Through this initiative, the app contributes to the new era’s journey of using technology supported systems and data science expertise to effectively drive management and decision-making needs in health sector. The app is available on Google Play Store (Igaju App).

Over recent years, Africa is showing that the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders has increased. Unfortunately, the process of officially diagnosing individuals with autism is tedious, requiring clinical resources and diagnosis methods such as Autism Diagnostic Interview (ADI) and Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS). Consequently, it is believed that many more people who are on the spectrum remain undetected in Africa. Moreover, the time spent waiting for a formal diagnosis is lengthy; for instance, the average waiting time or time lag (the time at which parents first become concerned about their child’s development and the time at which the child receives a diagnosis from a qualified professional) is over 3 years. In addition to this, many low-income families, and rural communities lack access to health care professionals with autism-specific expertise. It has also been reported that many African children with autism are hidden away at home — sometimes tied up, almost always undiagnosed. 

These and other distinctive traits of autism in Africa such as a potential infectious aetiology, late diagnosis, and poor management accentuate the need for more research & innovation focus and public health response in this region. “The lack of research and innovation on autism in Africa has been a negative impact on any potential plans for support and services for people in need,” mentioned Dr Pacifique, “studies on autism and other neurodevelopment disorders in Africa are urgently needed.”

Dr. Pacifique and his team believe that the developed app will help healthcare providers to improve the accuracy of screening, reduce the time spent waiting for a formal diagnosis, and lower the costs for both clients and insures. In addition, it will also serve as a platform of opportunities for other researchers and entrepreneurs to create innovative data analytics tools, which will have a significant impact on the Rwandan health sector and beyond. In this regard, our project is being supported by several collaborators where for example we recently received a support for a full time PhD program.

As autism awareness comes to an end this month, AREF strives to continue nurturing health researchers to create initiatives such as the Igaju app which is ultimately helping to develop Africa as a whole. 



Notes for Editors:

For media inquiries, contact: 

Awa L. Jagne,

Africa Research Excellence Fund

The Africa Research Excellence Fund (AREF) was founded by Professor Sir Tumani Corrah KBE in 2015.

Professor Corrah founded AREF to support the careers of the new generation of African researchers, giving them the stepping stones needed to become outstanding research leaders in their respective fields, ensuring that talent is retained in Africa to address the continent’s unique health research needs.

AREF’s vision is of an inspired, committed, and talented community of researchers in Africa leading world-class research and participating equitably in international research endeavours for health and wellbeing. 


You may contact Dr Pacifique Ndishimye here:

Igaju app is available on Google Play Store (iOS version coming soon):

Published: 30 April 2024