How parents and teachers empower Nigeria’s special needs children

Early intervention and educational services, combined with support networks, have led to huge improvements, but parents still point to a lack of government assistance and say COVID lockdowns have brought new challenges.

By Kemi Falodun

Abuja, Nigeria – Joseph was about to turn two when his mother noticed that he liked to keep to himself. He would not associate with other children, was not maintaining eye contact, had started walking on his toes, and mumbling, which she found particularly strange because a child’s speech should improve with time. All the signs called to mind something she had read in passing in a magazine several years earlier. So she went on Google to research his symptoms and possible diagnosis. Everything she read confirmed her suspicions: autism. “I just knew,” says Aisha John-Mark, gazing at the wall in front of her as she recalls that day. “And I knew I had to seek help.”

She returned to Google for speech therapists in Abuja and it led her to a website about behavioural disabilities, how to care for children with special needs, and the importance of early diagnosis. Aisha contacted the writer, Lola Aneke, a special needs educator and founder of the Comprehensive Autism and related Disabilities Education and Training (CADET) Academy. The school, located in Asokoro, a highbrow area in Abuja, provides early intervention and educational services for children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Asperger’s syndrome, Down’s syndrome, and other developmental disabilities.

Following Lola’s advice, Aisha took her son to the school. “The child stays there like he’s part of the system and they keep assessing him,” she explains. After about a week-long assessment, the therapist at the academy concluded that Joseph had a speech disorder. Not only does the school provide educational support for children with special needs, they also work with therapists to help with behavioural modification, speech therapy, social skills and language skills. So to continue Joseph’s education and treatment, Aisha enrolled him at CADET. That is when they noticed he was exhibiting other behaviours: he could not hold a pencil, he would get really uncomfortable when a place got noisy. Another assessment confirmed that he had autism.

Research on ASD in Nigeria, and in Africa in general, is sparse. There was a time when many assumed that autism was only found in developed countries. However, recent research from Nigeria showed that 54 of the observed sample of 2,320 children had autism, and the condition is relatively more common among boys (45 males and 9 females were identified with autism in the study). Globally, it is estimated that about 1 in 160 children has autism.

Aisha and her son live in a small outbuilding in Suncity Estate, a middle class area in Abuja. There is a bed on which she sits and a chair she offers me. Joseph sits in front of the TV, although it is turned off because there is no power. Soon he stands and starts pacing about, muttering something. He wraps his hands around his mother, giggling. Then he comes to me, laughing, holding me.

“Joe, stop that,” his mother says, and he smiles and continues hopping about the room. “He can do that all day. He never gets tired. It’s me who gets tired,” she explains.

After Joseph was diagnosed with autism, Aisha’s husband blamed her. Surely, she must have done something when she was pregnant to cause it. He said the boy was not going to improve being surrounded by children like him, so he withdrew him from CADET and enrolled him in a mainstream school. “His teachers were always calling to complain that he wasn’t getting along,” Aisha says. Joseph was later withdrawn and re-enrolled at the academy.

One day, Joseph’s father went to CADET and told the management that he did not want to be bothered about his child’s school fees and welfare. After several other challenges, Aisha left her now ex-husband and has since been the sole provider for Joseph. “I try to stay strong because of my son,” she says.

Joseph is now eight years old and “knows how to spell”, his mother says with a smile and a glint in her eyes. He sits back in front of the TV, still turned off. Then he stands and takes his mum’s phone and opens YouTube. “His speech is not what you’d expect [of] an eight-year-old,” she says, rubbing his head. He giggles. “His sentences are short.” But when he wants something, he can say, “Mummy I’m hungry. Mummy I want internet. Mummy let’s go,” she says. Oftentimes, though, he utters single words: “Chicken”, “Car”, “School”. “That’s how his speech has been. It’s been slow but tremendous progress,” Aisha says.

One of the goals of special needs schools is to provide adequate care and attention so that the students can eventually be integrated into mainstream schools. This is why early diagnosis is important so therapy can begin immediately. Unfortunately, diagnosis of autism is often delayed in Nigeria due to factors such as a lack of knowledge about ASD, an inadequate number of trained personnel and healthcare facilities, and financial obstacles to getting help.