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Shining A Light on Autism Spectrum Disorder in NigeriaBy Oluchi Egboh on September 3, 2021

Disclaimer: The names of our respondents have been altered to protect their privacy.

An introduction to the dilemma

B efore I watched the Netflix series Atypical which is centered around an autistic boy who was able to overcome the obstacles of this neurological hindrance and achieve his dreams with support from family and the community, I was completely unaware of what it meant to be a kid on the spectrum. I had attended schools with special needs programs for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD hereafter) and those with other learning disorders, and, in all my years as a student, not once did we have a session where we were enlightened on how to treat someone with this condition.

I undertook some research on how many schools in Nigeria have a special needs program with safe spaces for students with disorders or disabilities to learn in an environment where they are permitted to have one-on-one sessions with specialist tutors and personalized learning techniques. According to stats I obtained from education news website, there are 1777 institutions with such special programs. Despite the seemingly encouraging number of programs and autism awareness groups in the country there still seems to be a lot of ignorance around the subject. The main goal is still to make our society more inclusive for those on the spectrum and we can only do this by improving our foundational knowledge on how to treat autistic people.

Record of schools in Nigeria with a special needs program by
Record of schools in Nigeria with a special needs program by

Outcomes of low prevalence of ASD awareness

Simply creating a special needs program and support groups does not dampen the effect of the larger-scale ignorance. One would expect more people in the middle and upper to be well informed about ASD due to the quality of education, accessibility to the internet and higher literacy rate amongst these levels but Okey Martins Nwokolo in his article titled A Psychologist’s Perspective on The Taboo of Autism in Nigeria mentioned that “psychologists and even medical doctors who seem to be hearing the word ‘autism’ for the first time.” Individuals in these occupations fall under the upper and middle class and this goes to show that autism ignorance is pervasive. Inspired by a particular scene in the series where the autistic boy was having a breakdown, a police officer approached him saying “Are you on drugs?”.

I kept thinking about how the situation could have easily gone sideways if his friend had not come into the scene. Now let’s apply it to a real-life situation here in Nigeria. Firstly, I doubt the officer would have been patient enough to properly analyze the situation before putting the ‘perp’ in cuffs or worse. In the next scene, a seminar was set up to orientate the officers on how to distinguish between an autistic person and a neurotypical person – a brilliant initiative that will doubtlessly save lives. Further research on the matter shows that there have been other cases between a police officer and a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder that could have ended fatally. In Salt Lake City, Utah a 13-year-old boy with autism was shot in his own home after his mother called 911 to assist her son who was experiencing a mental health crisis. His mother Golda Barton was asked to wait outside. A couple of minutes went by and gunshots were heard from inside the house, her son was shot but the hit was not fatal.

Acknowledging the bitter truth

The low prevalence of ASD awareness particularly in the rural areas of Nigeria has led to much worse consequences. Our first respondent, Sarah, whose brother identifies with the neurological disorder narrates her account on how a lack of awareness may have caused her brother’s mental crisis to trigger a near-miss incident on one of his school bus journeys. She says “the bus driver was driving and made a sharp turn, and he just started getting angry and scattering things.”  The sharp turn had somehow triggered her brother sending him into an aggressive tantrum. All the ruckus behind distracted the driver from the road almost resulting in a collision. Lady luck’s intervention meant the driver was able to evade the accident. With sufficient funding to provide a facilitator to accompany ASD students on school bus journeys and other school outings this risk could have been mitigated.

Sarah goes on to confess that she was equally guilty of this ignorance in the past. “We used to think that he was possessed or he had a mental illness,” as she ruefully recalls how a lack of awareness lost her family valuable time that could have been spent adopting progressive changes and remedies for her brother within his family. This is a very common misconception about ASD in Nigeria. The children are tagged to be under demonic influence and in need of exorcism, or they are misdiagnosed by healthcare workers who are unable to identify the symptoms of ASD this sometimes leads to autistic persons being admitted into disability centers for retarded or hearing-impaired.

Creating deliberate solutions

Due to fear of social exclusion or castigation, most parents lock their children away and hide them from society, preventing them from receiving the benefits of available ASD interventions in Nigeria. Pediatricians in Nigeria should undergo specialized training that helps them identify ASD in their patients at an early age, early intervention can improve the child’s overall development improving their communication and social skills at a young age. Our healthcare system ought to have appropriate funding to run this training exercise, ASD knowledge should be a criteria to work amongst healthcare professionals.  The Nigerian Police force could also adopt the idea of orienting their officers about ASD this would help them decipher between a drug induced citizen and a person on the spectrum. It’s important for the force to have knowledge about the various disorders that cause behavioral changes, being the one behind the gun requires you to take a lot into consideration.

In educational institutions, you would expect the narrative to be a positive one with more enlightenment around ASD but Lota, an undergraduate student of Babcock University, whose six year old sister has been medically diagnosed with autism says “when she got into her new school she had a hard time settling in, the teachers didn’t understand her and her classmates didn’t understand her so it was a big mess.”  There was a lack of information on how to calm her or properly communicate with her in the way she understands and our speaker says “because of that they would just leave her to do her own thing and it won’t involve her.”  The outcome of their ignorance on ASD led to the six year old being excluded from class activities which could be somewhat traumatizing for any individual. Lota’s family had to take matters into their own hands and appoint a facilitator who would accompany their daughter to school and assist her when the need be.

IN3K8 Media · Shining A Light On Autism Spectrum Disorder In Nigeria

According to Lota, things at school seemed to be much better with a facilitator, but what of those who cannot afford to get a facilitator to support their ASD child? Does the child continue to face exclusion from her peers? Does school continue to be a horror house of chaos for kids on the spectrum? To make the school grounds more inclusive for an ASD student is a small price to pay compared to the collateral damage that spawns from their continued social exclusion. We should strive to give ASD students the same school experience as every other neurotypical with a few enlightening sessions that will build foundational knowledge on ASD.

The Federal Ministry of Education owes it to every child to create a learning environment that is conducive for learning – including those on the spectrum. Teachers at each grade level should be oriented about ASD, through government funding or they could attend ASD seminars such as the annual GT Bank Autism Initiative Conference. Educating parents, caregivers and health workers about the requirements, care and management of ASD and the affected children happens to be one of their goals. To make the relationship between teachers and their ASD students progressive, schools in the private and government sectors should organize conferences where parents and teachers come together to discuss ways to create a suitable educational system for students with learning disabilities such as ASD.

Most kids with disabilities are unable to attend social activities at school due to crowded spaces or loud noises. We’re quick to conclude that it is best to leave them out of such activities instead of brainstorming ways to make such events inclusive for students. In Episode 8 in the first season of the show Atypical, a student pitched an idea to the parent-teacher group to host a silent disco to give the autistic main character the rare opportunity to attend a school dance where he could be comfortable and not flare up due to loud distracting sounds. Students were given soundproof headphones that played the music into their airs and not out loud. This is an example of a brilliant initiative which happens to be a contemporary party trend. Such events could be hosted occasionally at schools to help kids on the spectrum experience the more exciting and sociable parts of school life.

The necessary orientation that will increase awareness on ASD amongst Nigerians should begin at schools, where ASD sufferers are part of a more diverse population. Educating neurotypical students goes a long way to improve their understanding of the characteristics of ASD and this will help them embrace their autistic colleagues without judgment or scrutiny. With the necessary support by the Federal Ministry of Education, Nigerian schools will breed more success stories from those on the spectrum who will be empowered to live fulfilling and more meaningful lives. An example from other climes is David Blunkett, a visually impaired member of the United Kingdom’s House of the Lords. His story stands as motivation to others with similar disabilities and our Education Ministry should – per their mission statement – be working to replicate it in our autistic brethren and indeed all Nigerians.

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