By JOSEPHINE IGBINOVIA
The President of Parents Against Autism Initiative-PAAI, Mrs.Angela Emuwa (nee Aboderin), is a mother of three, one of whom has autism. Autism is described by science as a neuro-developmental disorder which causes poor development in children. In this interview, Mrs. Emuwa speaks in commemoration of the International Autism Awareness Month which was observed throughout the month of April. Enjoy!
What’s PAAI about?
PAAI comprises parents with children who have autism. The initiative is to create more awareness on autism. One thing about autism is that you cannot discern it by merely seeing a child that has it. They look like your regular children! It’s only when they start throwing themselves on the floor or crying without cause, banging their heads on the wall, etc. that you are able to tell.
Light and people affect them, and sometimes they are unable to sleep and are restless. Recently in April, PAAI had a one-day event which we tagged Autism SpoRtlight to raise more awareness. There are a lot of children from poor families being put behind locks by their parents because they feel it is a shame to have an autistic child.
PAAI wants to assure them that it’s not. Children are a gift from God, and I am so blessed to have my own child, Dubem. We all love him in the family, and take him with us for outings always. PAAI also needs the government to realise that a lot of families cannot afford the tuition that is required for children with autism since they need one-on-one tuition.
We at PAAI are grateful to God that we are able to cope with the financial cost of catering for our own children, but for less privileged families, the story is different. That’s one of the reasons PAAI is creating awareness to raise funds for poor families, and to also let the government know that these children have to be properly cared for educationally.
I know that government has established some inclusion units in public schools in the country, but many of them are poorly staffed. You find over a 100 pupils of different ages and challenges with just four teachers in a class! How will the children learn?
So, the place just becomes like a care centre where people just come to dump their children. These children can learn! All they need is to be properly taught. Some of them even go to university if given the necessary help early in life. That’s why Early Intervention has remained an ongoing theme for autism because unless we start early, we’ll have
adults growing up to be forever dependent.
How would you compare the developmental speed between autistic children in special centres with those at government-owned inclusion units?
Of course the children in special centres develop faster. So, we could see that indigent children are made to lose out on opportunity because their parents do not have the money. My son for instance would not have been able to talk if I had not done what I’ve done for him. Now he’s able to function, read, write, and all that.
He’s eleven years old now, and everything came later than his peers’ but I’m continuing to get him one-an-one tuition, and I know he will continue to make progress and I pray he will be able to go to the university. That is what happens when you’re consistent with their education. That’s why we’re calling on government to support poor families.
But what if he is unable to go into university after all your efforts?
That doesn’t matter. I’ve vowed to do everything possible for him to get the best, and fulfill his potential. Potential may or may not be to go to university, but we’ll ensure we try to teach him a skill. He could go into sports or learn other crafts because people with autism are particularly skilled! In the US, they are employed by companies to do computer programming because they’ve been discovered to have certain skills.
The son of the Treasurer of PAAI for instance, Mrs.Dotun Akande, is very good in music! Mine took part in the Special Olympics last year and his team won a gold medal after representing Nigeria in Athens! When you give them the opportunity, they can be anything!
It could be sports or crafts like I mentioned! CDC for instance has a centre where they are taught pastries, candle making, etc., and I believe they can earn a living from this and could have their own companies. I know some companies do not like employing them, but one thing they are yet to discover is that these children can be of benefit to them since they do not know how to tell lies.
What’s the current prevalence of autism?
We do not know what it is like in Nigeria, but in the US, the current figure is put at one out of 88 children. That is to say that out of 8,800 children, there are one hundred children with autism! In Nigeria, though I cannot say precisely, I think it should be around one in 120 children.
Because autism is a spectrum, it affects the children in different ways. Some are high-functioning while some are low-functioning; some are able to manage their lives while some cannot do anything on their own; so, putting a tag on the prevalence might be difficult with a proper statistics. The point remains that the situation is very prevalent and we need to address it.
How old was your son when he was diagnosed with autism?
He was 18 months old when he lost his speech. Before then, he was talking and everything was fine. Suddenly, his words actually began reducing gradually until he couldn’t use them anymore. After undergoing all the necessary tests, it was discovered that he had autism.
Does that mean that these children were not born with autism, and that something may have brought the disorder along the line?
We honestly don’t know. Maybe they have the tendency to have autism, and then something triggers it off since there are lots of toxins in the environment. Some people claim that it was actually after vaccination that their child changed. I don’t want to say that vaccination is the cause because vaccination hasn’t been scientifically proved to be the cause of autism.
Coincidentally, my son had his vaccines not long before he changed, but still, I cannot say vaccination is responsible. I would however advice that parents make sure their babies are very healthy before they have their vaccines. My child had a cold at the time when he had his own, but I didn’t know all these.
So, what would you say to government?
We cannot deny the fact that autism is in our society. If we do not deal with it, we’ll have a future society with a lot of problems. Government should make sure the inclusion units in schools are properly equipped and staffed so that they do not just become daycare centres for these children, but centres that will help them grow to be independent.