In commemoration of the autism awareness month 2022, a non-governmental organisation, The Autism Awareness Foundation, TAAF held its fourth annual autism conference to discuss the best trends for educating children with special needs in the post COVID-19 era.
The conference which also coincides with the launch of a mobile application that seeks to connect therapists with parents across Nigeria was held for three days spanning April 27 to 29 at the American Corner in Ikeja Lagos.
TAAF is a not-for-profit organisation that raises awareness about disability and inclusion of children with disability in the classroom and in society while eradicating stigmatisation and marginalisation.
Collaboration with the US consulate
In her remarks, Jennifer Flotz, a representative of the U.S Consulate in Nigeria and the Mandela Washington Fellowship said that the US government is always ready to support initiatives to find solutions to some challenges facing children with disabilities.
She noted that under the auspices of the Mandela Washington Fellowship Reciprocal Exchange Program, of which the convener and founder of TAAF Omotoke Ayo-Olugbode and Grace Saleh, both 2018 Fellow are collaborating with an American professional, Jasmine Poole to provide training support for caregivers, educators and parents of children living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
According to her, the collaboration will seek to ensure that participants gain skills that improve how they interact with the children and deal with challenging behaviors.
She said: “For us at the U.S. Mission Nigeria, we are committed to engaging with both state actors and disability activists to promote the rights of people with disabilities (PWD), people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and people with albinism (PWA).
“It is hoped that the training will provide you with scientifically proven strategies for promoting support for ASD children. I commend all the trainers that have come here today to be part of this very important program.”
Parents, as both teachers and therapists
Jasmine Poole, a native of the United States of America, whose son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at the age of two talked about caring, teaching, and recognizing ways to help individuals with different abilities, admitting that although raising a child with special needs brings a level of seclusion and exhaustion.
The Behavioral Health Registered Nurse said “A day in the life of a caregiver-child with autism spectrum disorder can include any number of challenges and stressors. A caregiver might be driving their child to various appointments, advocating for the child’s educational needs, helping their child avoid sensory overload, or dealing with an unexpected tantrum in public”.
Similarly, Esther Sule-Okeugo, the founder of Haven for Autism, a foundation that seeks to provide safe spaces and vocational skills for autistic children, explained that parenting a child with special needs can be challenging, but it is necessary to be intentional about them.
She said: “As parents, our daily work is not only imparting knowledge to our children but advocating for their rights and best interests. Apart from medical care that you may line up to help your children, there are everyday things one could do to make a difference. Focus on the positive, stay consistent and on schedule, give it time, take your child along for everyday activities, and get support.”
Autism Community and COVID-19 Pandemic
While all the panelists admitted that the COVID-19 pandemic greatly affected the attention and education of children living with autism spectrum disorder, they recommended the possible new educational trends and solutions ahead of a post COVID-19 era.
Speaking further, Mrs Sule-Okeugo said that with the Covid19 pandemic and the related public health restrictions, learning has been a challenge for many educators, families, and students, particularly for children with autism.
“Most children on the spectrum experienced disruption to therapies, and their caregivers reported worsening of autism symptoms and moderate family distress. The closure of schools impacted the delivery of special education services to students,” she said.
She however recommended that parents should focus on their child’s strengths and not just academics because when it comes to students with autism and related special needs, it extends beyond typical education into special education, life skills, and functionality.
On the other hand, Lucky Jet, a registered licensed occupational therapist with the Medical Rehabilitation Therapist Board of Nigeria suggested that parents should embrace supportive therapy at home for children with special needs.
He explained that supportive therapy at home is paramount in the education of an individual living with autism spectrum disorder, adding that the approach enhances rapid rehabilitation, evident by the adaptation of the individual to the home environment.
To promote the inclusion of children with special needs, TAAF has launched ‘TheraConnect’ a mobile-friendly application that will help parents get help for their autistic children from qualified therapists and book sessions.
According to TAAF Executive Director, Omotoke Olugbode, the application which is now available on the google play store would help parents access affordable and effective therapy.
According to Emmanuela Akinola, diversity equity and inclusion professional, “TheraConnect is a timely initiative that will not only create a platform for parents who have autistic kids, it will also be creating an enabling environment where they can easily get support and get access to different therapists.