My first teaching role was at an inner city further education college many moons ago. My first day was a baptism of fire as I was showered with the kind of abuse I would only deserve if I had insulted someone’s beloved grandmother.
It was my first lesson and it started well, until one of the students started playing with paper and threw it at another classmate. This was totally unacceptable as they were 16-17 year olds. I was attempting to get into University of Ibadan at that age! I told the main culprit to stop messing about and he turned on me as if he had pre-prepared a script of abuse for the inexperienced teacher who had the misfortune of telling him to behave that day.
After he finished a rant which included cursing all the members of ‘his’ family, I calmly asked him to leave the classroom, while I did everything I could not to break down in tears. The rest of the class looked on in obvious enjoyment of the early-morning entertainment. I hadn’t done anything to deserve abuse from the boy and I felt like walking out of the classroom and never returning.
I must mention here that I was a visiting lecturer. I was only at the college for as long as they needed me to cover for their law lecturer who was off- sick for the second time as a result of mental illness. Because I was new and a temporary member of staff, other members of staff hadn’t remembered to tell me that I had a student with special needs and I wasn’t given any strategies to employ with such a student.
My foul-mouthed lad had Asperger’s syndrome which is on the ‘Autistic spectrum’. He also had elements of Tourette’s syndrome which meant his was prone to verbal outbursts of foul language. The poor boy was quite bright and likeable as long as one did not trigger his symptoms and he ended up being one of my favourite students in my short stay at the college.
I recently met an autistic adult at a 2 day conference and as we chatted, I saw the signs that I now knew how to spot. He made me remember by student from years ago. I hope my student continued to receive support at college and I hope he was able to make through to university and a job.
What is Autism?
I spent time learning more about autism before writing this piece in the hope that someone somewhere would read this and get help or suggest help for a child.
According to the National Autistic Society, Autism is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them. People with autism often have restricted interests and engage in repetitive behaviours. Autism is not an illness or disease and cannot be ‘cured’. Because autism’s symptoms vary greatly, the condition is said to exist on a spectrum, referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Some facts about autism are not widely known. It affects far more males than females. Also, it affects children in different ways and doesn’t necessarily mean that a child will have low intelligence. In fact, many extremely intelligent and talented people have been found to be on the Autistic spectrum. Remember those university professors we called ‘kolo’?
Many signs of autism are noticeable by the age of three and some children can appear to develop normally until the onset of the disorder.
What are the signs?
Again, according to the websites and books I read on the issue, the severity of symptoms in children varies greatly. However, the most common symptoms include:
- not drawing their parents’ or others’ attention to objects or events, for example pointing at a toy or a book, or at something that is happening nearby (or a child may eventually do this, but later than expected)
- carrying out activities in a repetitive way, for example always playing the same game in the same way, or repeatedly lining toys up in a particular order. They may also exhibit repetitive actions like hand flapping, body rocking, and making sounds.
- resistance to change or doing things differently
- Limited ability to interact socially and communicate with others.
- Behaviour such as biting, pinching, kicking, pica (putting inedible items in the mouth), or self-injurious behaviour like hand-biting and head banging.
- Lack of eye contact
- Unusual responses to sensory experiences and may be highly sensitive to certain sounds, textures, tastes, or smells.
If a child displays any of these signs it is wise to seek the help of a health professional. Parents may want to take along a list of behaviours and characteristics that they think might mean that their child is autistic.
Addressing the Naija factor, I can already imagine parents blocking out the thought that their child might be autistic. No one wishes it for their child but these things happen. If your child gets a diagnosis of Autism it is because God knows you are the best person to raise that child. Instead of living in denial and allowing such a child to grow up with all sorts of labels, taunts, bullying or becoming isolated from friends and family, it is better to get medical help. In fact, with proper support, some children are able to outgrow some of the problems high-functioning autistic children have with social interaction.
The key is early diagnosis and intervention. Looking back to my primary school days, I recall one child in Primary one whom we all thought was insane. We used to run away from him in the playground because he hardly talked, just made sounds and rocked himself in a corner as he ate his lunch. That was in the ‘80s and I am almost certain he was on the autistic spectrum. He had no friends and he was taken out of school when we were in primary three. While one could forgive his parents for not getting him a diagnosis and possible help as his condition was almost unknown to the general public in those days, it would be a crime for any self-respecting parent in 2017 to ignore the signs and avoid getting the help their child needs.
Developmental disabilities are not the end of the world. If diagnosed early, intervention and highly structured behavioral, cognitive, and communication therapies can sometimes dramatically help autistic children learn skills. However, severely autistic adults are rarely able to live independently as adults.
Finally, life is hard enough without allowing our kids to carry some burdens alone. The only disability in this world is a bad attitude.
Abi Adeboyejo lives in Birmingham, UK, with her two children and her fabulous man, who by the way, prefers that his wife writes down her thoughts than listen to her musings on everything.