By Josephine Igbinovia
Her regular Montessori school, The Learning Place, Lekki, had been in existence for six years when two years ago, she decided to include a special unit, The Learning Place Centre. Mrs.Bolanle Adewole, The Director of TLP, who was impressed by the tremendous changes she was able to bring to the life of her eight year old autistic son, knew it was best to help other parents replicate such in their autistic children as well as children with other developmental disorders.
In this interview, Mrs.Adewole who is also a member of the Parents Against Autism Initiative, speaks on her work with children, her style of helping children with autism, among sundry issues.
How fulfilling has been your work with developmentally-challenged children?
As an educator, by and large, I have found that children have an amazing ability to grasp concepts, depending on the way things are presented to them. Each child is an individual and should be taken as such. So, working with each child with developmental disorder demands that one works with the child on the basis of developing the child’s peculiar strengths and abilities. When children are worked with and treated as individuals, maximum result is always achieved.
What are the symptoms of autism?
There are many symptoms of autism. Basically, they include lack of eye contact, language and communication challenge, emotional detachment, repetitive or stereotypical behaviour, walking on tip toes, delayed milestone in language development and more, to mention but a few.
But what exactly could be responsible for autism?
There is no known cause for autism till date, but research focuses on environmental factors, genetics, and several others. The fact however is that the prevalence is now higher than it used to be. CDC in the United States recently released a ratio which estimated that 1 in 88 children have autism. As we speak, there is still no actual known cause and cure for autism.
How many pupils do you have with autism at your centre?
The ratio by the United States is lower than what we have in our school. Out of every twenty children, we have three with autism.
I guess it must be quite challenging operating a typical and special school at same time?
There is actually a link between the two schools. When developmentally-challenged children are taught one-on-one and their skills have been developed, they become better receptive when we integrate them into the regular school. What we do is that we let some children attend classes at the regular school for two days and then attend classes for three days at the special school, every week.
We continue taking them for inclusion at the regular school until they are finally able to integrate fully. Children with developmental challenges basically need to acquire individual skills first and then develop certain skills, before they are fully integrated.
How effective has this strategy proved?
Excellently well! We’re finding that children who couldn’t speak at the beginning of the school year now do very well; talk more, express themselves, acquire skills, etc. Over time, we’ve seen development, amazing growth and uniqueness. A lot of them are doing many more things than they ordinarily could have done.
These make us very happy. With these children however, I must state that it is very important that one is consistent with whatever therapy the child starts with. The progress may be slow because it varies from child to child, but the fact is that you would surely get results.
The Learning Place Centre is nearly six years younger than the Learning Place which is eight years old now. What prompted the setting up of the centre at the time you did?
My eight year old son with autism informed the setting up of the centre. We found that the services were not readily available, but from the researches and studies I did, I found that the disorder was actually treatable, particularly with the success I recorded with my son.
The treatment was not satisfactorily accessible. So, since I already had a school, it was easier for us to set up a centre. Since the setting up of the centre, I have seen a lot of improvements happen in the lives of many children, and honestly, I can now say that I know the real reason why God gave me a child with autism in the first place. It is with much joy that I watch the children progress.
How is your own son coping?
He is coping excellently well. He has sensory disorders and that’s the only area we’re still battling with. Other than that, he is reading, comprehending stories, playing the piano amazingly well, swimming, doing athletics, etc. His vocabulary is much wider, and he expresses himself well.
As a nation, what do we stand to lose if we fail to give due attention to special children like those with autism?
You know, one thing with children with autism is that they are exceptionally skilled. A number of great people who have done historic things are on the autism spectrum! Bill Gates, Robert Einstein and many others are on the spectrum. All of them have done exceedingly well for themselves and their nations.
My son would just go to the piano and play a tune, and that is rare with regular children. Some of them are highly mathematically skilled; they can get to places in the computer that you do not even know exist. As a nation, if we empower them, it will be for the greater good of our society in the long run.
But if we neglect them, it would be very bad because we would be losing out on experts who would have come out in future to develop our IT world, musical industry, etc. I’m however happy that the federal government is beginning to recognise autism as a disorder in Nigeria, and the World Autism Day is going to be observed by Nigeria on April 2nd each year. Things that were not readily available are gradually coming up, and I know that if we keep going with this momentum, we would get more things available for these children.