Yearly, new cases of autism are increasingly recorded allover the world while parents are torn in two over managing children with autism. Mrs. Heather E. MacKenzie, a Canadian autism expert with almost 30 years of experience, however believes children with autism are the most impressive and interesting. This, she says, is because despite their complex neurological disorder, most children living with autism, like Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, are exceptionally innovative and intelligent. Heather who holds a Ph.D in Speech Language Pathology and Administration of Medical Educational Institutions was in Nigeria last week where she facilitated a one-week autism training at Patrick Speech & Languages Centre in Lagos. Feminista had a chat with her.

What has been your experience with children living with autism?

*Heather MacKenzie

When I started working with children with autism about 30 years ago, they became more and more fascinating to me because I saw that they were people who had lots of abilities, as well as some areas that were really challenging. But they are interesting, puzzling and intriguing children. Most of them are very visual, so, what they see is what they know and what they believe. Hearing and learning through their ears is often very difficult. I’ve studied them and I have therefore been able to help make the world a better place for them to live in.

How come you’ve been working with autistic children for about 30 years while we’re only just beginning to understand autism in Nigeria?

I think we have a different medical system in Canada and perhaps a different way of thinking about children and caring for them. France is also just trying to develop ideas that are more progressive about children with autism. So, it’s also just starting in France! You see, it takes a while and you’ve got to get people thinking differently; like a cultural shift.

You’ve got to get people to understand that these children are part of the human society but are only unique in some ways. If we can take the time, we can learn more about those unique gifts that they have. It takes people like Mrs.Dotun Akande, the Founder of Patrick Speech & Languages Centre, to make such steps, so that other people will know more about these children.

As an autism researcher, what new discoveries have been made to further demystify autism since its cause is still not known?

We are now more able to look at the brain to see what’s happening, so that we can now say people with autism do not have the same kind of connections between the different areas of their brain like regular people. But we also know that with good therapy and teaching, they can develop those connections so that the differences can become less.

We’re also learning some things about environmental issues which make us want to believe that mothers who are exposed to more pollution during pregnancy have a higher risk of having a child with autism.  We’ve also learnt, from Dr.Temple Grandin, an American doctor of animal science and professor at Colorado State University, what things make a difference and why people with autism do not like eye contact.

Grandin was able to achieve in life despite having shown clear signs of autism as a child. These people do not make eye contact, not because they don’t care, but because it’s too hard for them. Some people say their brain just become empty if they have to look at somebody because for them, seeing and listening at same time is just too difficult.

Next month, April precisely, is International Autism Awareness Month; what word of advice do you have about children with autism?

They are people of value. They may seem different from other people but they sure have gifts that they bring to this world. They only need love and acceptance, just like anyone else. It’s not mental illness but a different way of being wired in the brain. It’s simply that some differences happened when they were still in their mothers’ tummies.

So, we cannot blame them for their situation. My passion is actually children with autism. This is because I know they are people of ability who have exceptional skills in different areas. That’s why one in ten people on the autism spectrum are able to perform extraordinarily in areas like mathematics. You can’t find such ability amongst one in ten of the regular general population.


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