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Autism not death knell to a child’s future

WEDNESDAY LIFE
By Mwangi Muraguri | June 1st 2016
Angels on Earth Centre for special needs children headteacher Billy Boston (left), teachers Kulthum Said and David Mutisya (extreme right) watch as Robin Akwabi uses a smart phone. The boy has a gift with working with numbers and rarely gets a sum wrong. He is also very gifted in using phones and other electronic devices. [PHOTO: MWANGI MURAGURI/STANDARD]

Autism has been referred to as the ultimate test of parental love and often those caring for these children do not foresee a productive future for them.

In April 2014 when I first visited Angels on Earth Centre, located in Nyali, that caters to children with special needs, I met with Mary Omboka whose then ten-year-old son, Finley, was a student at the school.

“I’m so happy that my son is now independent. When he first came here, he could not eat, dress or go to the toilet by himself. He has since come a long way and we now have hope that he could join a mainstream school,” she told us.

You can, therefore, imagine my delight when Director Diane Rooke told me that Finley did in fact make it out of the special needs school and is now doing well at a mainstream school.

During my previous visit, I also met Peter Muteti — a father of two autistic boys, and it was also a joy to hear that his 11-year-old had also moved on to a mainstream boy.

“I am elated because of this. My son made great milestones during his time here and this equipped him to go forth and thrive among his peers,” he said.

According to Rooke, while children with autism do have certain challenges in learning, seeking professional assistance can go a long way in reducing symptoms which then helps the child cope better.

Also depending on the degree of the disorder, autistic children can display talents in numbers, language and sports. We got to witness this first hand as we interacted with children at the centre.

TALENTED LOT

Nine-year-old Robin Akwabi immerses himself into solving an addition sum penned down by this writer. In less than two minutes, young Robin solves the sum (324 + 521) using the manual method of addition and using the calculator.

His teachers, Kulthum Said and David Mutisya who are standing beside the boy exchange satisfied glances with director Rooke. A few minutes later and we see the boy operating a smart phone, effortlessly moving from one app to the next.

“He is gifted when it comes to working with numbers and rarely gets a sum wrong. He is also has a knack for using electronic devices,” says school head Billy Boston.

Robin’s mother, Francisca Muthika is pleased with her son’s progress and says he has come a long way.

“From a very early age, Robin had problems sleeping at night. I also noticed he was aloof and unlike other children would not show any interest even after seeing me arrive from work in the evening,” she says.

Unlike Robin, who is a bit reserved, six-year-old Sharlin Nyona has a knack for language and is also outgoing. The girl easily writes out simple English words dictated to her by her teachers.

She was, however, not like this when she joined the centre three years ago. At the time, she had a problem concentrating, her speech was poorly developed and she had difficulty controlling her emotions.

“She now has a way with phonetic sounds which she executes with baffling precision and ease,” says Billy scanning through the girl’s report.

The ever smiling Sharlin, who is among the most improved learners at the centre, seems to have put her past behind her. She remains calm all through the interview and does not throw tantrums.

Sharlin’s father, Bramwel Malele, describes the journey towards his daughter’s improvement as “long and torturous”.

“It is my brother-in-law who noticed the delayed speech and hyperactivity in the child and asked me to take her to hospital to be examined for autism. Being diagnosed with the condition saw us relocate from Nairobi to Mombasa,” says the single parent.

Malele appreciates his daughter’s marked improvement and notes that diet and therapy have played a big part in the management of the condition.

Another child who is also showing improvement is Maxen Nyabena. When I first met him, the young boy was hyper active and it was difficult for him to remain calm all through the interview.

When I meet him this time, the young boy — who has a photographic memory, instantly recognises me even though he cannot express himself coherently. When I make to greet him, the Maxen — who is still hyper active and occasionally throws tantrums, extends his hand for a high five.

Teachers and other professionals at the centre describe Maxen’s case as “typical autism” which mirrors all challenges from hyper activity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

But for the past three years, a team of teachers, occupational therapist and other trainers at the centre have trained their effort in seeing the boy’s condition improve.

Maxen’s mother, Belyne Nyamari recounts the challenges her family has faced trying to ensure that their autistic son grows up in a comfortable environment.

“Being the first born, his birth presented new challenges in that we could no longer visit relatives given my son’s hyper activity,” she says.

She notes eliminating sugary and gluten rich foods from her son’s diet has helped to bring his hyperactivity to manageable levels.

“I urge fellow parents with autistic children not to give up on them because they are capable of improving and becoming like other normal children,” she said.

So marked is the boy’s improvement that he represented the centre and Mombasa county during the national level special schools sports association held at Bungoma last month.

“His involvement at the games was a pleasant surprise. I was overwhelmed listening as Maxen’s teachers narrated the boy’s good performance at the games,” Belyne says adding that athletics and football are her son’s favourite sports.

NOT EASY

Unlike the other children, Mary Wairimu — mother of 12-year-old special needs child Carol, says her child was normal at birth and she was growing normally until a bout of malaria saw the girl suffer violent convulsions that changed her life forever.

“When you give birth to a baby, you expect it to be normal and grow up to take care of herself.

When Carol got sick, I had to travel with the ferry to take her to hospital and I remember her convulsing severally as we waited for the ferry and while we were onboard,” she says.

By the time mother and child got to hospital, the baby was in critical condition having slipped into a coma and ended up staying at the intensive care unit for ten days.

“When she came to, I called out her name and all she did was raise her eyes and look lazily at us. She could not talk, eat and feed herself, things which she was doing on her own prior to the coma. I was distraught and I can remember feeling like my life had come to an abrupt end,” she says.

Before Wairimu and her husband learned about the centre from a family friend, they tried enrolling their child at a mainstream school.

“Her classmates and the teachers complained that she was wild and uncontrollable. She was also fond of climbing high points, which scared teachers. My heart was seared every time I went to pick her only to find her in soiled clothes,” she says.

The couple got to learn about the centre from a family friend where they enrolled their daughter and although she is still hyper active, there has been a marked improvement in her mannerisms.

The journey and experiences of children at the centre, who now show remarkable improvement, has been long and arduous.

And director Rooke says: “It is not a process for the weak-willed. Parents have to be strong if they are to see their children through the journey that sometimes takes years for any changes to be realised”.

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