The children at the Nehemiah Autism School represent a very small cross-section of children on the spectrum and their families. There is one other special needs school in Addis that has around 60 children with a variety of disabilities, including autism. It is a private school and I am told it is quite expensive to attend. We tried to make arrangements to visit this school, and meet the founder but unfortunately the timing didn’t work out this trip.
Outside of the capital city there are no services or schools of any kind for children with autism. Many Ethiopians that I spoke to had not even heard the term autism.
The founder of the private autism school in Addis did a big publicity push recently to raise awareness of autism. Rahel has also done some publicity work around autism education. These are good first steps, and I hope both women will continue to be ambassadors for autism awareness in Ethiopia.
Through Dick Koening’s connections, out team made some steps of our own to improve services for autism in this country. Dick and Rahel spoke to the head of psychiatry at St. Paul’s Hospital Medical College to discuss the possibility of getting the medical school involved in the diagnosis of autism.
Dick also managed to get us an audience with the Assistant Minister of Mental Health. Our team spoke to the minister, Dr. Tedla, for about 45 minutes about ways to improve autism diagnostic and intervention services, increase awareness, and also how to move beyond Addis and reach children in other parts of the country.
The obvious conclusion was that we needed to empower Ethiopians for this task. Having locally trained special education teachers, psychologists, speech therapists and occupational therapists doing assessments and delivering services is a more effective way to address the problem than relying on intermittent help from volunteers.
Ethiopia has a long way to go to make this plan work, though. At present, there are no degrees for Speech Therapy or Occupational Therapy offered at Ethiopian universities. A degree in Special Education seems to be a rarity as well. Ciara and I met with a mother who was looking for a place for her child to go to school. He is 3 1/2 years old, can write the entire alphabet, draw and identify a variety of shapes and is quite verbal. Despite these strong academic skills, no regular education school will take him because of his diagnosis of autism.
Without Ethiopian educators, psychologists, and specialists on board it is hard to see how there can be effective intervention for children on the autism spectrum. Ethiopia is a country of 80 million people, and currently there are 80 autistic children receiving help between the two autism schools in Addis. Barely a drop in the bucket. (The latest research says that 1 in 88 children are on the autism spectrum.)
I felt very privileged to have worked with the staff, families and children at the Nehemia School. They are making tremendous strides despite the numerous barriers they face. I am looking forward to watching (and helping) autism services grow for the Nehemiah School, Addis Ababa and beyond.