I arrive late. So as Dr. Oyelohunnu closes the first talk I am pleased to notice several well-known faces dotted around the room fully engrossed, but politely acknowledging my arrival.
The second talk is by Dr. Marcus Tillery of Blazing Trails. I’m listening out for how exactly we are going to improve systems and policies in Nigeria and already my thoughts are “where are the IADT team and Mrs Osime?” As I sit in this talk, I pleasantly discover I am already well versed with much of what he is saying… his words however are much fancier and have the added allure of an American accent. Then appears gem number one in the idea of technologies that increase broad skill areas. Beyond assistive technologies that focus on the improvement of verbal communication alone, we can access tools to increase self-care and independence skills.
What are these tools? And can they be adapted to suit the needs of the Nigerian culture? The problem with most assist communication devices is not cost to the average man in the developing world, it’s the concept itself. We have not yet understood the richness in the nature of communication to value much beyond speech – even sign language is looked down upon – talk less of assisted speech using picture exchange systems and voice response tablets. Later I’ll pick his brains and figure out how these technologies can work in this climate.
Gem number two is Dr. Tillery’s idea to include the current online certification program (delivered by university of Texas) in other already established degree and human services programs being delivered in Nigeria. The aim is to broaden the range of people that would have access to autism certification. This way you spread capacity and build understanding of the condition in so much as is relevant to different parts of the community. For example, a policeman would benefit from a broad understanding of the condition and knowledge about certain techniques that could help him communicate with citizens on the spectrum. Perhaps there are certifications in autism we ought to approach the way we approach First Aid training, you don’t need to be a paramedic or a nurse for it to apply to you.
The next talk is about nutraceuticals and Dr. Ajibade makes the case for using vitamin supplements also known as bio-medicals on children with autism spectrum disorders. Nutraceuticals are highly concentrated chemicals designed to help the body heal itself with particular attention to four main systems (the brain, digestive, immune and detoxification systems). When you improve the nutritional aspect of the human body, you give the body the tools it needs to heal itself. Having said that, the field makes no claims for cure of disease. In this case, bio-medicals has either been grossly misconstrued or has had a recent make-over. Word on the grapevine has always been about the claim of cure and miracle that advocates of bio-medicals are keen to profess and the lack of evidence to support those claims. Thankfully, there have been no such claims here today, however there have also been no shows of evidence of the efficacy of this method.
The afternoon progresses into technical talk about how we can augment text, adapt our screens to be more accessible, where we can download online tools to help us create teaching material for our special education learners. Here are a few that were mentioned: software for creating symbols and pictures such as Mayer-Johnson’s Boardmaker and Symwriter Online; reading comprehension tools such as IntelliTools reading software, educational products and Planet Wobble talking books; accessible e-books from starfall.com, eduscapes.com and bookshare.org, with features including audio, large size text and highlighting.
A brief pause to re-fuel at lunch and the next talk is underway. Dr. Akindayomi gets up on stage to give us a wake-up call. We spend so much time trying to fix our children, but what happens if your child has autism for the rest of their life, what happens if they never fit in?
Dr. Akindayomi is the founder of the Children’s Development Centre (CDC), a facility that provides diagnostic assessments, treatment, vocational training and other social services to children and young adults with autism spectrum disorders. She explains how our society devalues people that are different and in particular people with developmental disorders and other disabilities. This devaluing prevents them from being able to participate in the community as accepted members of a society. She laments; we have become so unkind to each other and to ourselves.
Her talk is powerful and provocative; it incites a spirit of combat against negative attitudes. Are we truly ready to change, ready to normalize and accept people for all they are? Are we ready to stand in line and allow the person with a disability to go ahead of us? Are we ready to sit next to the child with Downs Syndrome on a plane for six hours without complaint? Are we ready for normalization?
I and about 150 others at this talk shout yes and we mean it, but there’s a nagging feeling that outside these four walls the answer may be strikingly different.
In the next talk I’m feeling a little like my brain might be full so I get side tracked into conversations with some interesting people. I have a chat with Dr. Oyelohunnu, senior registrar in psychiatry and member of the West African College of Physicians, who is excited to hear about my pending partnership with GTB. She is desperate for Nigerian-based expertise to enhance the monthly support group she has been running with Dr. Campbell, consultant psychiatrist at Lagos University Teaching Hospital. Monthly consultations are held for parents and caregivers of children with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders at the College of Medicine, Lagos University Teaching Hospital.
My chat with Dr. Oyelohunnu leaves me with a feeling of expansion. The government is not currently providing the support these families need so Dr. Oyelohunnu and her colleagues are taking matters into their own hands and she is determined to make asktoks.com a part of this movement. Suddenly the work I’m doing feels like it’s about to reach many more than I had conceived at this point. Excitement bubbles.
I compose myself and bump into the ever so charming Dr. Doris Izuwah, clinical director of OLG Autism Centre in Abuja. Her center runs eclectic therapies for children with autism and related disabilities. I get a sense that Dr. Izuwah is eager for new knowledge in her field, she is here to soak up technical jargon and geek out over nutraceuticals, bio-medicals and so forth. It’s refreshing to speak with someone who is consistently seeking to improve her services by learning from others in a similar position to her own. She is full of hope and beams with excitement but mostly it is her determination to persuade GTBank to replicate this conference in Abuja and build the pool of expertise in the country’s capital, which gets her noticed at this conference.
The day closes with a final gem disguised in a rushed lecture on Speech and Language Therapy by Mrs Oranye, Special Education Needs/Gifted and Talented Coordinator at Grange School, Lagos. The few that remain get what they’ve been waiting all day for; they get answers to the questions: how does all this benefit me in my experience with the child I know? What can I do to help my child when I cannot afford therapy? What do all these theories and techniques mean for me personally?
Mrs Oranye wastes no time and tells us exactly what we need to know, she delivers the following practical skills:
1. Be a good role model in your home and in the classrooms. Use simple language the child can attend to, at the same time you need to match their skill level with your language e.g. if the child is at the one word level, then you use one to two word phrases, if they are using three to four word phrases then you do the same or slightly better.
2. Encourage periods of time when the child gets to lead the play or interaction, this helps increase the child’s confidence and alleviates the pressure to communicate verbally.
3. Approach every activity as a learning opportunity, everything from bath time to meal times, to watching something on TV to simply walking from point A to point B, all activities are opportunities for the child to learn something new.
It’s the end of the first day and so much has happened; presentations, talks, interviews, side meetings, private brainstorming sessions, interrogations, introductions, inquiries, a desperate plea for help here and there, encouragement, prayers and we’re not done. If nothing else were to happen for the rest of the week, this conference would still have been a great success. Kudos to you GTB.
The opinions expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not reflect the opinions of asktoks.com. asktoks.com is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied in the article.