How a centre in a Nairobi slum provides hope to autistic children through education

A teacher engaging an autistic child in games.Picture:Courtesy
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It is a sunny morning at Songa Mbele na Masomo Children’s Centre in Mukuru kwa Njenga slum. The bell has rung and the break is over. All the students rush back to their respective classrooms.

Inside the class, Teacher Lilian Komu calms the noisy children and assists them to sit around a yellow table. Each time she is not looking a blow flies around the table or one pulling the other’s one sweater, a complaint here and there. She has to manage the situation.

Teacher Komu selects some pictures. They are pictures of a gumboot, an umbrella and rain. The lesson is all about the weather. She shows the first picture to the pupils and asks them to identify the contents.

Mary, one of the brightest in the class answers in Kiswahili mwavuli (an umbrella), though the word does not come out clearly. As the class continues Harrison seems to be sleeping, he doesn’t want to learn today and Juvino the naughty one, is not paying so much attention but determined to disturb the whole class.

After 10 minutes the first lesson is over they move to next one. It is time for colouring and everyone seems to be interested. Each pupil is given a colour and a drawing of the cloud and drop of rain.

“The concentration of the pupils is not so good most of the time. So you cannot do the same activity for a long time,” explains teacher Komu.

Learning in this class involves use of bright colours, bold numbers and letters as well as more practical lessons.

This is not a typical school. The students are autistic. The learning process of an autistic child is programmed, organised and scheduled for them to understand easily.

Autism is a neuro-developmental syndrome and is one of the disorders that fall under the umbrella of Pervasive Development (PDD). The syndrome is characterised by deficits in social and communication skills and restricted and repetitive behaviour.

Though the cause of autism is not known, scientific evidence point to a combination of factors such as genetic, parental and post-natal components of child development.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an estimated 800,000 children worldwide have autism. Autism affects more boys than girls at a ratio of 4:1. Some of the institutions that have come out in Kenya to stand for the rights of autistic children is the Autism Society of Kenya.

“Autistic pupils understand but in little bits. It takes time for them to process the information,” explains Komu.

Each teacher must give attention to each and every pupil because they all have different autistic conditions.

“Some kids have high support autism and others a low which makes them depend on others completely,” says Komu. She notes that some pupils lack speech, others are hyper or very anti-social and they all have different needs that require attention.

According to the School Programmes’ Coordinator, Benson Kiragu, they charge KSh100 ($1) per month with an administration fee of KSh20 ($2).

“We charge low fees to encourage parents with autistic children not to hide them but instead bring them over to get an education. As a centre we want to reach out to as many children as possible,” says Kiragu. For them to succeed, they work closely with social workers to identify autistic children in the village and bring them to the centre.

Autistic children are very demanding and need attention of more than one person to help in feeding, changing diapers and taking care of their other needs while at school.

“As a Centre we would like to take in more children but are limited because of few trained special needs teaching staff and lack of finances,” Kiragu explains. He notes: “Our school is also not well equipped with the necessary resources.”

With few public schools for autistic, it has become a problem when it times to promoting them to the next class and advanced schools which are expensive and sustainability becomes a challenge.

In addition to funding, the school also faces the challenge of uncooperative parents who leave for them the full responsibility of the child. These are parents who are not committed to taking care of their children despite a biweekly training provided on the importance of maintaining a certain diet and following schedule directed by the therapist. Diet and schedule is very important for an autistic kid.

According to Kiragu some parents are living in denial and have not accepted their child’s condition. They instead blame themselves for the condition or look for some reasons to justify the disorder.

Stigma and cultural beliefs also poses a big challenge in addressing autism. Most parents end up hiding their children and do not seek medical advice for fear of discrimination, stigma and isolation of the children.

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