Not responding to their name, avoiding eye contact, not smiling when you smile at them, getting very upset if they do not like a certain taste, smell or sound, repetitive movements, such as flapping their hands, flicking their fingers or rocking their body, not talking as much as other pupils, repeating the same phrases, these are some if the telltale signs of autism, well at least according to www .nhs.uk.
Autism can be defined as a mental and sensory disorder which largely affects the nerves and brain. There are a number of autistic school-going children, unfortunately, their plight is minimally considered by education policy makers. It is not given the due attention it deserves.
I recently met Jackie (not real name) with her 12-year-old autistic son who is now in Primary Four at the Faculty of Special Needs Education at Kyambogo University. They were there to attend a public lecture on autism.
With frustration written all over her face, she told me that her son doesn’t receive much attention and help from teachers because of his condition. All she wants is for him to complete Primary Seven.
Jackie hoped that by attending the autism lecture at Kyambogo, she would be able to network with other parents dealing the same condition and chart a way forward.
“I want to meet other parents and see how we can handle and help our children. If we come together, perhaps we can start a school for our children and look for teachers who handle them well, instead of taking them to ordinary schools where they are poorly handled,” she explains.
Jackie’s woes started nine years ago when she noticed that her son, who was three years then, had a speech impairment.
“At first, I thought he had just delayed to start speaking. But apart from failing to speak, my son preferred being alone most of the time to playing with his peers,” she narrates.
When she talked to her friends about her son’s condition, they told her that those were signs of autism. As he grew up, I observed that his understanding was retarded as well,” she says.
At four years, Jackie took her son to school where she thought he could develop fast cognitive skills-indeed, the results were positive.
“He performed well because his first kindergarten teachers were patient and would understand him, but when he got to Primary Two, his teachers started mistreating him, and since then, his learning has retarded,” she says.
Jackie spoke to school authorities to hire teachers who were trained in handling children with special needs for an extra fee but the school didn’t oblige.
She like many other parents wishes the Ministry of Education would come up with with programmes such as training teachers to handle autistic children.
Esther Aciro, a teacher at Namthin Primary School in Nebbi District, says autism is a big problem in Nebbi District.
“We have many autistic children in villages but the parents don’t know what to do with them when it comes to education. In Nebbi, we don’t have special needs school to help such children,” Aciro intimates.
She adds that the few special needs teachers in existence do not know how to teach children with autism. It is a challenge to the extent that the children drop out.
Robert Stuart Oyesigye, a special needs and rehabilitation lecturer at Kyambogo University, and the chairperson of the National Association of Special Needs Education Teachers in Uganda (ASMETU) says the problem is rampant across the country with lack of knowledge being the problem.
“There are many teachers who claim to be helping autistic children but when interrogated deeper, you discover, they cannot separate autism from intellectual impairment,” he says.
Although there are scanty statistics on the extent of autism in the country, Oyesigye says it is common to find children with signs of autism in schools.
He points out that some parents hide autistic children at home, especially those who live in gated communities.
“Some parents associate disability with evil spirits and curses. Some parents leave such children with their grandparents. They make sure the child remains hidden,”
Sabine Baeyens, a Qigong therapist and master trainer, says children with autism are always in defence mode, which means that their body system is trying to survive.
“Someone who is trying to survive may not be open to learning. This is why the child will not be able to capture what is taught,” she says.
Sabine says she hopes to train Ugandan parents and teachers how Qigong sensory therapy can help children with autism. This is a specialised form of massage from Chinese medicine that normalises the sense of touch. As touch normalises, so do other sensory and autism problems.
Quoting Dr Louisa Silva’s research on autism, she says, since the child’s nervous system is tipped towards stress, massage is a way for parents to turn this around.
How it’s done
She says this involves 12 movements that go along the body. It’s a massage that lasts 15 minutes and should be done on an everyday basis with the help of a therapist or parents. The massage promotes relaxation, soothing and promotes language and social skills.
The Qigong massage starts from the head to toe since the nervous system is located from the brain and extends downwards to the spinal cord
“The therapy helps the children’s nervous system to open up for them to learn. When their minds can relax, the brain is ready to learn. A relaxed brain is open to learning. If we can heal the touch in the skin, then their behaviour can change and get better,” she says.
Qigong can also be applied when a child is going for exams and other intense activities. The massage is a direct way to calm down the nervous system.
Tips on handling autistic learners
There are some sure-fire ways to ensure that learners with autism are given due attention in the classroom. www.blog.stageslearning.com lists some of them. These include: Creating a structured environment, making communication easier, using visual aids, making activities structured, using direct language, giving them extra time, being aware of sensory issues, eliminating potential stress, keeping instructions simple.
According to Sarah Ayesiga, assistant commissioner in charge of inclusive and non-formal education at the special Needs and Inclusive Education Department, Ministry of Education, autism is a big challenge and the ministry is charting ways to help such children with a policy in the offing.
“People do not understand what causes it, how to manage, and everyone is doing things on a trial and error basis. We have so many learners with autism. They label them as ‘mad’. By statistics, we don’t have data on how big the problem is,” she says.
Ayesiga says the ministry intends to train teachers on how to handle learners with autism and make sure they understand and identify the learners to create appropriate intervention.