Children with autism

Selamawit and Melakanesh are two young mothers united by hope.  When their first born sons were both diagnosed with autism, both women sought assistance from the Nia Foundation – one of the few specialist organisations providing support to autistic children in Ethiopia. As a result of their participation in the Civil Society Support Programme (CSSP), the Nia Foundation was able to expand its range of care and education options for children with autism spectrum disorders in and around Addis Ababa – providing valuable skills training, counselling and support to children and families affected by autism.

At first Selamawit didn’t believe her son had autism, ‘I took him to the doctor, but they couldn’t diagnose his symptoms.’ Selamawit tried to enrol Nathan in nursery school, but after a short time the teachers refused to teach him. Selamawit gave up her job in design consulting to care full-time for Nathan at home, ‘I felt helpless. I didn’t know what was wrong with my little boy, and I didn’t know where to turn.’

Melakanesh, and her son Hameza, have a similar story. ‘When they diagnosed him with autism I couldn’t accept it’, she laments. Like Selamawit, Melakanesh gave up her job as a secretary to care for her son at home, ‘there was nowhere else to go’.

Nia Foundation’s approach to specialist care for children with autism

© Tom Broadhurst

Henok, the Behavioural Psychologist at Nia Foundation (Photo by: Tom Broadhurst (CSSP))

Both women’s lives were to change when they saw television programmes about the Nia Foundation. Established in 2002, the Nia Foundation was formed when founder Mrs. Zemi Yenus discovered her young son Jo-Jo had autism. Concerned by the lack of professional facilities to diagnose and support children with autism spectrum disorders in Ethiopia, Zemi decided to set up the Foundation to promote the full integration of children with autism into society. Based at their specialist care facility in Addis Ababa, the Joy Centre, the Nia Foundation work closely with autistic children, their parents, extended family networks and the public to offer much-needed professional care, create support networks, and challenge perceptions about autism spectrum disorders and other disabilities.

‘To ensure that children receive high-quality care and support we try to operate a student to staff ratio of 1 teacher to every 2-3 children’ states Henok, the Joy Centre’s Applied Behaviour Analysis Psychologist. ‘We have a waiting list of children that we would like to support at the Joy Centre’. Enter CSSP. ‘With support from the CSSP programme we were able to recruit and train 10 more specialist teachers at the Joy Centre. This enabled us to provide care for an additional 30 children with autism spectrum disorders’ smiles Henok.

Nathan and Hameza – after a one year wait – were consequently offered a place on the Joy Centre’s programme of rehabilitation and education, providing much needed support and relief for their families.

‘I felt helpless before Nathan started coming to the Joy Centre,’ notes Selamawit, who has seen real progress is Nathan’s development.  ‘He goes there Monday to Friday all day to do skills training. There is lots of change happening.’

The impact on Melakanesh too has been positive, ‘I feel so happy that Hameza is coming to the Joy Centre. For 7 years I was with Hameza all the time, caring for him. Now I have more time, which I am using to regain my inner peace.’

Family support groups

In addition to holistic rehabilitation services to children with autism spectrum disorders, the Nia Foundation also offers a family support group, which was strengthened with CSSP assistance. Now a family support meeting takes place with parents and staff from the Joy Centre on the first Saturday of every month, at which teachers present on childrens’ progress, deliver training and facilitate group counselling.  ‘Being able to meet with other parents in a similar position to ourselves makes us feel better.  We understand and support each other’ acknowledges Selamawit.

With further CSSP support, the Nia Foundation is now expanding its work to enable more children with autism spectrum disorders to receive professional support.  In collaboration with local government, Nia Foundation is equipping 8 public schools in Addis Ababa and 5 in Oromia special zone to teach children with autism spectrum disorders – improving facilities, providing educational resources and training 26 special education needs teachers how to support children with autism. This facilitates specialist education and care for around 80 children that would previously have been excluded from the education system.  Plans are also afoot to build a new Centre of Excellence for autistic children to complement the Joy Centre – enabling even more mothers like Selamawit and Melakanesh to receive support and rediscover hope.

‘The Joy Centre is my life saver’, says Selamawit.

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