By Meritt Buyer
Yesterday was World Autism Day. One of our local partners, Autism Connects Tanzania, organized a march through downtown Moshi to help raise awareness about autism and celebrate the individual talents and gifts of those with this particular disability. Hundreds of children, parents, teachers, and community members walked through town celebrating their differences and abilities and handing out flyers to onlookers.
Autism is a particularly challenging disability to understand because it is so diverse. The label ‘autism’ encompasses an incredibly wide range of communication, social, and sensory challenges. Therapies that may help one child don’t work for another. Some children are verbal, some are not. Many have difficult behavioral challenges. The body of research surrounding autism is growing rapidly and our understanding of this diagnosis changes right along with it. ‘Infantile autism’ only appeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1980. In 2013, the DSM-V created the umbrella category Autism Spectrum Disorders to encompass all subcategories and diagnoses. Because autism became part of mainstream dialogue so recently, raising awareness and cultivating understanding is particularly important. This is even more true in Tanzania where so much stigma continues to exist around disability.
Imagine for a moment, running a classroom in Tanzania and not having access to all the education and resources on autism available in other parts of the world. Imagine not having any formal training in special education, sensory integration, or behavior modification. Now imagine trying to connect with a non-verbal child with autism. Imagine trying to teach him to how talk and how to express his needs. Imagine trying to understand his repetitive stimming behaviors. Imagine not understanding why this child won’t look at you and does not want to play with the other children. Exhausted yet? This is the reality for many people working with children with autism in Tanzania.
When Meghan Hussey was the Fellow here two years ago she wrote about Sheddie, a little boy with complex sensory needs who attends one of the BCC day centers. Sheddie is a charming, endearing guy who loves the see-saw and the swing. He likes music and things that he can rattle. When Meghan first wrote about Sheddie, he was non-verbal. Thanks to the efforts and patience of BCC staff, today, Sheddie is learning to speak. He greets visitors in his own loveable manner and wishes them goodbye when they leave.
For those in the field, even in the US and Europe where people have access to resources and education, teaching children with autism takes a huge amount of understanding, ongoing education, practice, and patience. I am continually impressed by our staff here in Moshi as they embrace the challenges and gifts of our clients with autism. They take each piece of new information and training and do their best to apply it in their centers. They deeply and carefully care for each child and try to determine the best ways to engage them. And when they see progress, like Sheddie’s quiet “bye”, everyone glows with pride. It is definitely something worth celebrating in the streets.