Forty-three-year-old Melanie Cowpland and her 10-year-old daughter, Sofia, left their home in East London, England, on November 14, 2015 to raise awareness on autism across Africa.
Sofia is autistic. The two have been riding on a customised two-seater motorcycle through Africa on a mission to raise awareness about the challenges and the growing number of cases of autism on the continent.
By the time their adventure - christened “Africa with Autism” - ends in East London in July this year, they will have passed through South Africa, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe (her country of birth), Mozambique, Botswana and Namibia.
Sofia was born in France where her mother worked as a paint artist. At four, Melanie noted that her daughter suffered from delayed speech and echolalia, a language disorder where a child uses repetitive speech. Sofia was also over-sensitive to noise from motor vehicles and supermarket computer beeps. She was averse to change, suffered from insomnia, had frequent meltdowns and was obsessed with animal drawings.
“I decided to go back to the United Kingdom to have my daughter examined as the country has a comprehensive autism diagnosis and management plan, including funding for a child’s education,” recalls Melanie.
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Melanie and Sofia were in Kenya from February 10 to March 14. They met members of a support group of parents with autistic children and a couple of people running autism awareness organisations. She says her personal experience is not much different from what Kenyan parents have undergone or are going through. She shares her experiences on her blog that goes with the name of her trip - Africa with Autism.
According to autism website, www.autismspeaks.org, autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterised, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication and repetitive behaviours among other behavioural defects.
The most obvious signs and symptoms of autism tend to emerge when a child is between two and three years of age. For a reason yet to be established, boys make up the biggest percentage of autism cases. According to World Health Organisation, two per cent of the world’s population is within the spectrum, with the ratio of boys to girls being 4:1. Kenya is estimated to have 800,000 people with autism.
In Kenya, parents say the government should do more to make life better for autistic children. They say the Ministry of Health needs to create comprehensive autism units in both Level 4 and Level 5 public hospitals where these children can access free medical services.