The experience of having an autistic child inspired Mrs. Tunji Akande to establish the Patrick’s Speech and Language Centre (PSLC), named after her son Agbolade, who was the first official student of the school. Six years after, the centre has graduated 30 autistic children into regular schools, including Agbolade who is today 14 years old and doing well. Mary Ekah writess
The happiest moment for any mother is when her baby is placed in her arms in the delivery room. She promptly forgets all the pains, ill health and discomfort felt throughout the duration of her pregnancy and joins the family to celebrate the new addition to the household. In most of our communities, a man’s wealth is measured by how many children he has which, is why if a child is born with any form of disorder which confounds the family, such child is regarded as a curse or an abomination. The child is usually locked away from the public to hide the family’s ‘shame’, thus killing any chance of recovery for that child.
This is usually the case with children born with autism, a disorder which so many people do not understand and are not sure how to manage.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms used for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterised, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviours. They include autistic disorder, Rett syndrome (a disorder of the nervous system), childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder, Asperger syndrome (a higher form of autism) and are all associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination, attention and physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances and so on.
Autistic children are usually quite intelligent and most of them when given appropriate therapy and support display excellent skills in music, mathematics and arts. But in most cases, they are not given the opportunity to excel in their talents.
According to the Nigerian Autistic Society, one in every 150 children born in Nigeria is prone to the disorder and thus requires special care and patience to enable them to overcome the disorder. When tackled at an early stage, the disorder can be corrected before the child grows into adulthood. Aside from the lack of proper care and attention, the greatest challenge faced by autistic children is the inability of parents to understand that autism is not a death sentence for the children.
Till date, research has still not shown anyknown and definite cause of autism. While it is possible to nail down the cause of autism in very few children, there is no definite answer to why a child is born autistic as most cases are considered idiopathic, meaning; there is no known cause.
In Africa, particularly Nigeria, not much research has been done or awareness created on the disorder and how it is managed, which is why only few families understand the needs of the autistic child and provide the necessary tools by which the child receives therapy.
Lucky for Agbolade Patrick Akande, a victim of autism, he was born into a family who sought answers and refused to give up on him, believing that he was born into the world for a purpose. Agbolade was the second child of Mr. and Mrs. Tunji Akande. He was born on March 17, 1998, a healthy baby, and grew up fast with all the mannerisms associated with healthy babies. Things however took a dramatic turn when at 18 months, Agbolade’s parents noticed some reduction in his activities and he lost the ability to utter even the few words such as ‘mama, dada’ that he had begun mouthing from 15 months.
It was a confused and worried Mrs. Akande who took Agbolade to see a specialist where he was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
“The day Agbolade was diagnosed with ASD, I was devastated. I felt like the world had come crashing down on me and my child’s future had evaporated right before my eyes. I was like someone in a dark tunnel calling out for help but no one could hear me,” she recalled.
Fear and anxiety for her baby took Akande to different hospitals, consulting with different medical personnel, all in a bid to learn more about the disorder. She gathered as much information as she could possibly get on the disorder and its management, including self-help tools, and information on special schools for autistic children. Akande said in the process, she realised, quite disappointingly, that doctors, nurses and most medical consultants had little or no information on the disorder and its treatment, and so could not help her.
Armed with the knowledge the Akandes independently gathered, they began home-schooling for Agbolade, beginning with speechand music therapy. “I had to resign my job as a banker so as to give Agbolade all the attention required. It is unfortunate that we couldn’t find any school, whether government or private where we could enrol him and where we did find one, they lacked the adequate tools and skills,” the mother noted further.
The experience of having an autistic child led to the establishment of the Patrick’s Speech and Language Centre (PSLC) in 2006, named after their son. Agbolade was the first official student of the school and six years after its establishment, the Patrick’s Speech and Language Centre has graduated 30 autistic children into regular schools, including Agbolade who is today 14-year-old and doing well.
Sharing her experience with staff of MTN Nigeria, who paid a visit to the centre as part of the activities of the 21 Days of Y’ello Care programme, an annual staff volunteerism scheme that takes place simultaneously in all 21 operating units of the MTN Group in Africa and the Middle East, Akande insisted that lack of education and awareness about autism is one of the bane of the health sector. This, she said, would not augur well for the rehabilitation of autistic children.
According to her, both the medical personnel and the government must take this disorder very seriously and create massive public awareness, as well as establish good schools equipped with the right tools and teachers to provide therapy rehabilitation for autistic children so that they can be re-introduced into regular schools.
Speaking during the visit to PSLC, Manager of the 21 Days of Y’ello Care project, Mr. Aderemi Durojaiye, stressed the importance of education in the nation’s quest for development. He argued that every child in the country is entitled to education, adding that MTN’s appreciation of the importance of education was the principal reason the theme of this year’s Y’ello care programme is “Investing in Education For All.”
Durojaiye said while the government had done quite a bit in the education sector, there was still a lot of room for improvement, especially in the area of training children with special needs. Also speaking during the visit, the Chief Executive Officer of MTN, who was represented by the General Manager CommercialLegal, Mrs. Oghenerhume Rotimi, said that MTN’s commitment to enhancing education in Nigeria is evidenced by the various high-impact education initiatives which is deployed annually as part of the company’s overall CSR through the Education portfolio of the MTN Foundation, the company’s corporate social investment vehicle.
“Our CSR is targeted at various categories of our people, including children. We are committed to making a difference in the lives of our people across the country. We are indeed happy to be at the Patrick’s Speech and Language Centre to give our own support,” Rotimi said.
The Patrick’s Speech and Language Centre currently has about 45 students having successfully graduated 30 students to regular schools. The centre has achieved outstanding results, turning the lives of many students around for the better. For instance, 22-year-old Oriofe Osisanmi, who came to the Centre at age 17 without any skills, is already a master at the piano and other musical instruments.
One of the high points of the visit was when Oriofe performed Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie’s ‘We are the World’, displaying his dexterity on the keyboard to the delight of the Y’ello Care team members who acted as his backup singers.
“We are really grateful to MTN and indeed all the other organisations that have supported this Centre since its inception and we call on other private organisations to emulate MTN and throw their weight behind these children to give them a better future,” Akande said. “While the government should be commended for passing the disability bill, it still has a lot to do in the area of creating awareness for this disorder. Above all, the government should establish schools for autistic and other special need children, equip them with modern tools and train the doctors and care givers in order to give hope to the families of autistic children”, she said further. Aside from Patrick’s Speech and Language Centre, MTN staff across the country visited other primary and secondary institutions in all the major cities where the company has offices.
They donated educational materials to pupils and teachers in some cases and organised reading clubs and mentoring sessions for the pupils.