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Taking care of autistic children

 Mary Omboka and her 10 years old son Finley Okinda at Angels on Earth for special needs, Nyali in Mombasa County on Monday 13th April 2015. Finley is suffering from Autism. [Photo:Kelvin Karani/STANDARD]

Kenya: Dianne Rooke has seen desperation in the parents with autistic children. Some come to her seeking admission for their autistic children at her special needs centre, Angels on Earth, in Nyali, Mombasa, only to be turned off by the school fees.

Forty five thousand shillings per term is too high for many parents. So they opt to keep their children locked up at home. Rooke says she is saddened thinking about those children.

“Embarrassment and stigma force these parents to lock up their children,” says Rooke slowly and painfully.

There are no public schools that specifically cater for autistic children and the private one are too few to accommodate the children. Besides, lack of awareness has created high stigma levels curtailing these children’s access to proper education.

Autism is a complex disorder of brain development characterised by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviour.

“In shopping malls, stares, giggles and guffaws follow whenever an autistic child does something that is considered unconventional like shrieking. The parent has to be strong enough to bear the ensuing spectacle,” says Rooke, a nutritionist.

She says diet is an integral role in managing the condition which is often congenital (present at birth).

“Coming up with a diet plan for autistic children is not easy as each child will react differently to different kinds of food. For instance, most autistic children cannot bear avocado or its products, yet there are those who do not react to the fruit. You gamble with food till you get it right. But whatever the meal, it must be balanced.”

For the 55 children enrolled at the centre, Rooke has come up with a diet that caters for all.

Autistic people should avoid sugary foods, red meat, gluten and soy products and caffeine which would make them hyperactive and restless and, therefore, hard to manage in class or when playing. Oat porridge and unsifted maize meal are good.

She further notes that speech, occupational, play, art and music therapies, which are offered at the centre, are pivotal in the development of the children.

Taking care of autistic children is expensive. Rooke gets well-wishers to sponsor some of the children. The Mombasa County Government is currently sponsoring four children at the centre.

The school groups children according to their abilities. They start in the beginners’ class, and then proceed to runners, dreamers and doers, before finally joining a ‘normal’ school.

“Autistic children have slow personal, social and emotional development. They also suffer from paranoia and doubt and thus the need for constant reassurance is paramount,” says the school’s head, Billy Boston.

Rooke is also a counsellor and play therapist who was feted by retired President Kibaki with a Head of State Commendation (HSC) for her devotion to those in need of special care.

Dr Abidan Mwachi of Coast General Hospital says the debate on whether the condition is a permanent, brain-based genetic disorder or whether it is a systemic, reversible condition rages on.

“There are studies that have shown a weak correlation between genetics and autism,” says Mwachi.

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