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Autism can be managed - we are normal people with special needs

 Sarah Bosibori Bitange, 28, was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). [File, Standard]

When Sarah Bosibori, now 28, was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the news didn't come as a surprise to her mother.

"My mother suspected something was different about me from the early days of life. She noticed I had a challenge picking up concepts, unlike other babies," Sarah says.

"I had a short attention span and was a slow learner. By the time I was joining primary school, I didn't know how to read and write. I was hyperactive and generally had learning difficulties. Because the school I joined had people trained to give special needs assessment, I was diagnosed to have Autism at the age of four years," Sarah says.

According to the American National Institute of Mental Health, Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people's brains develop and process information and how they learn, behave and interact and communicate with others. The cause of ASD is unknown. However, available scientific evidence suggests that it's a combination of developmental, genetic and environmental factors.

After Sarah was diagnosed with this condition, her parents transferred her to a school that could accommodate special needs children.

In the new school, Sarah says she learned a lot. "There were few students per class so the teacher was able to focus on every pupil's performance and participation. The teacher taught us at our pace and I learnt drawing skills which I am well versed in," says Sarah who has a certificate in Fine Arts from the Buruburu Institute of Fine Arts.

Sarah says that she passed well in primary school and joined secondary school. Thanks to the cognitive therapy she went through, the signs she experienced as a child had begun to fade. She knew how to read and write and was more articulate and expressive than before.

What troubles her to date is the repetitive phrases in all her conversations. She also has difficulty interpreting arithmetic but she is good at languages.

"I can openly say that life has not been easy at all. I have passed through stigma, especially in school. It caused me anxiety when my schoolmates discriminated against me, telling me that I was different from them. I have been called names, especially in rural areas where people are ignorant about the condition," Sarah says.

She adds that the condition also prevents her from taking part in normal activities. "I can't stay in a crowded place because of my condition. I become easily overwhelmed. This absolutely lowers my productivity," she says.

"Because of what I've been through, I thought it wise to be an advocate for people with autism," she says. She makes it clear that having autism does not mean you have a mental health condition but a neurological and developmental condition, "By the way, sio ugonjwa! It absolutely means that your brain works in a different way from other people," Sarah says.

Sarah is currently working with an online platform known as Enable Me that provides a space for her to write articles about ASD.

In her advocacy work, she has taken part in many activities including being a contestant, winner and now judge for the Mr and Miss Light of Autism Kenya pageant.

"I'm not doing this for money, I refer to myself as a 'self-advocate.' My main aim is to inform the public about this condition because currently there is no cure but it can be managed through therapies, doing a lot of research about it, and applying it in practical life," Sarah explains.

Sarah advises parents who still hide their children due to stigma should let them out so that they can get help. She says that society needs help from the government to fight myths and misconceptions and that the government should help parents access therapies for their children since, so far, therapy is too expensive for the 'common mwananchi.'

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