By Lekpele M. Nyamalon
Imagine walking to a hospital bed and greeting your wife in excitement about the birth of a new baby and dreaming of watching him/her grow. And, somewhere down the not too distant road, your beautiful child is diagnosed of having an anomaly, Autism. Living in Africa, one can imagine the ostracizing, the judgmental slurs from community members with allegations of witchcraft, ill omen, and other unsavory characterizations.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others properly or in a somewhat limited way.
These are the experiences of scores of parents who go through this highly emotional tunnel with little or no communal support and, as has been proven, with non-existent learning facilities for these children when they become of school going ages. Most of them grow up hanging around and join the cycle of perpetual liabilities on society’s already-over-loaded social issues. Some families have been urged to abandon their children, branding them as ‘evil children’, others have been told face up that their children were useless to society. A young mother of one, once lamented that she was told by her maid that her child was a ‘devil’s agent’ and hence didn’t deserve any kind of attention or special needs.
No doubt, because of the peculiarity of people with Autism, they are people of special needs and thus warrant persons trained in understanding those needs to help them.
In Liberia, West Africa, an organization ‘Straight from the Heart’ started by a West African Advocate and Radio journalist Agnes Fallah Kamara moved in to help and opened an Autism Class Room in Monrovia. A drop in the ocean as it seems, but goes a mighty long way in addressing the issues faced by scores of parents. Agnes remarked to me ‘I remember the first time I heard the word “autistic”. I was 47 years old, and in South Africa at my two-year fellowship with Vital Voices in November of 2014. Now a friend of mine, Jaki Mathaga, mentioned that she has a son who has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). I was confused because I did not know what the meaning of autism was. I went to my room and googled it. I was not able to sleep that night because I wanted to help Jaki’s son, Arthur, and I then began the process of searching for potential treatments for autism for him. The rest is history.’
I stopped by the opening ceremony of the Autism classroom in Paynesville-a suburban city outside Monrovia and was overwhelmed with the emotions of parents recounting their experiences. Agnes picked a classroom at the Abundant Grace DayCare and Primary School GSA Road Paynesville City Liberia and named it- Arthur and Zwanna Classroom– homage to two children born with Autism. Arthur, the son of her colleague; and Zwanna, a son to a well-known Liberian couple, are both autistic and represent the face of the classroom. Autism and all other forms of mental or physical limitations deserve the attention of policy makers in Liberia, Africa and the world. Children born with these conditions deserve an equal dose of care, patience, love and opportunities as their counterparts in regular conditions. Disability in any form should not be an obstacle for anyone in fulfilling his potentials. The Arthur and Zwanna Autism classroom is a cornerstone and represents the need to give attention to those differently abled from the rest of us.
The Vice President of the Republic of Liberia, Hon. Jewel Howard-Taylor cut the ribbon along with one of the parents, officially opening the doors to opportunities for children born with Autism. The pilot classroom sends a message that little efforts go a long drive in responding to some of society’s greatest challenges. Few sponsors include the Vice President of the republic of Liberia, A Friendly Face a NYC licensed provider of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy to children diagnosed with autism and the Eden 2 & Genesis Foundation. Agnes plans to improve the conditions of the school with this vision, ‘I want to have a well equipped school for children with autism as one of the schools in US for children with autism.’
The road to full potential for any society is to include all of its citizens on board, including those that are differently abled from the rest of us; and those living with Autism should not be left behind.
Lekpele M. Nyamalon is a Poet, Author, Speaker and a Mandela Washington Fellow- a flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative. He can be reached at [email protected]