“He is very good in handling electronic gadgets. He memorises everything he hears. He sings too”. Halima Usman (Not real name) highlighting the talents Mohammed, her son with autism, has.
Usman discovered Mohammed had autism when he was two years old. Being her first child, she did not notice anything wrong with him, but a family member saw him and said he should be taken to the hospital for check up. They did some tests, and the doctors said the child had autism. And so she went online to read more about it.
Usman says it has not been easy taking care of Mohammed, who is now nine years old. “When we go out with him, he throws tantrums, and people will be asking, what is going on, why is he behaving this way? This could be embarrassing. But we have accepted him the way he is, and even the extended family too have accepted him,” Usman explained.
Dr Monisola Ogunsanya, Family Physician, MD, Childcare and Wellness Clinics, Abuja explains what autism is.
“It’s a problem of a child’s development because that is where it starts. They have difficulty interacting with other people, and difficulty in communicating. They tend to have individually specific repetitive action that they carry out. It’s diagnosed in children between 18 months and five years,” Ogunsanya explained.
The following will give a signal that the child has autism. A child not making eye contact, hardly communicates, does not interact with other children, most times they don’t talk, they have gestures, they have repetitive behaviour or a routine they want to stick to.
Ogunsanya says the cause of autism is a leaning towards genetic disposition.
However another mum whose child has autism explains how the child became autistic.
“My child had jaundice at birth which was not detected on time because he was very fair, he was like oyibo. We knew on the fifth day when it was very severe. They did an exchange blood transfusion. When he recovered, they said possibilities were that he was going to have delayed milestone. And indeed he did. We registered him at the neuro clinic at LUTH were it was confirmed he had autism,” Azeezat Yunusa explains.
From research, giving the child behavioural and speech therapy helps the child grow into a better adult.
“One step we took was to take him to a special school, the Zamarr Institute Abuja. They have speech and behavioural therapists who help these children to learn the basic things of life. He is nine years old now and he is attending a normal school because of the early interventions he had,” Yunusa said.
A behavioural therapist, Mrs Ajuma Ibrahim says it takes a lot of patience to work with children with autism. “Seriously, it takes a lot of patience especially when they throw tantrums. With a typical child you know how it is to manage them, talk less of children with special needs. So, you have to be extremely patient. But seriously, they are beautiful,” she said delightfully.
For Mrs Banke Popoola, another teacher at Famaks School, Abuja, it’s fun dealing with children with special needs. “Its fun dealing with these children because you get to see the personality of the child and you get to help the child, academically, socially, and in other areas. Unfortunately, we are in a society where children with learning challenges/disability are seen to have a brain problem and asked to learn handwork or some craft , ”Popoola said.
At a training workshop organised by Mrs Khadeejah Oluronke Katagum, Founder/CEO The Zamarr Institute Centre for Children with Special Needs to mark April, the month for creating awareness about autism, she said the society should create an enabling environment for people with autism.
“The society should create an enabling environment for them. It should provide services like early interventions; create centres for early diagnosis, because this will help these children a great deal,” Katagum said.
Mrs Beatrice Dandison-Njah, Behavioural Therapist and Social worker working with children with additional needs in the UK ,and trainer at the workshop speaks further.
“In the UK, children have developmental assessment at the age of two years. At that time, a child should begin to talk and potty train. Also, a child should be able to draw one line. If a child is not able to do that at the age of two, you should begin to think, is this child okay? You should not take it for granted and say the child is a slow child,” Njah said.
She debunked the myths in some quarters that autism is associated with witchcraft.
“Autism is not witch craft and there is no vampire anywhere. It’s a genetic disorder and they are yet to identify the specific gene that causes it. What causes it in one child may be different from what causes it in another,” Njah explains.
One way to help these children is through early interventions. “When you seek out early intervention, you may be able to help that child. They learn a coping strategy that will sustain them through adulthood,” Njah said.
In Nigeria, many people who have autism are seen to have psychiatric problems and locked up in the house, because their families are largely stigmatised.
Azeezat Yunusa, says it’s not easy being a mother to a child with autism. “It is we the mothers that are really affected except when you are lucky to have a husband who understands. I have seen a woman whose child had cerebral palsy and then the child became abnormal and the husband left her. That was her only child,” Yunasa said pathetically.
Experts say there is no cure for autism yet. “Right now there is no cure ,but there are ways of managing it. Children that have been identified usually have a therapist that teaches them how to interact with people, so they can function well in the society,” Ogunsanya said.
“But all hope is not lost,” Ogunsanya encouraged. “Like I said, it’s a spectrum. There are people with a mild form of autism,and there are people with a severe form. Some grow and function in society like great adults and if they don’t tell you, you will not know they have that condition. Those with severe forms will need help even as adults. There is no treatment but early interventions help a great deal,” she said emphatically.