Autistic kids hit hard by lockdown

Autistic kids hit hard by lockdown

MASERU-AS many Basotho try to come to terms with how to survive the inconveniences brought about by the lockdown, children with autism are some of the worst affected.

With schools closed, educationists have come up with ways to ensure children continue learning and online classes have become one of the most popular means of keeping learners hooked to their books.
Not so for children with autism whose special needs are not easily catered for by online learning, according to experts.

“The lockdown has brought serious disruptions in the education of autistic children,” says Elisa Morojele, the founder and principal of Maseru Special Edu-care and Autism Therapies Centre.
“Autistic children are visual in learning. They learn through seeing things and being reminded constantly to concentrate. They need special skills to make sure they grasp and understand what they are being taught and we cannot do that online,” Morojele says.

Take the case of 17-year-old Matebele Semakale, who was diagnosed with autism in 2004 after losing his speech as a child.
According to Refiloe Semakale, Matebele exhibited all signs of being a normal child in his early years.

Semakale’s wife, who was working at Lesotho’s embassy in the United States, stayed with Matebele. As a member of the Lesotho Defence Forces, Semakale had stayed behind.

“We talked every other day, our communication was all good. Even when I visited them nothing seemed wrong” Semakale told thepost.
However, all that suddenly changed when Matebele stopped talking when he was two and a half years old.

Matebele had suddenly stopped talking and communicating in class. Teachers approached his mother and told her that Matebele had stopped responding to anything in class.

Doctors checked Matebele and put him under surveillance for a while before finally diagnosing him with autism.
At three years old, his speech was non-existent but he could hear when people communicated with him. Luckily, Matebele’s autism is not severe and does not require medication to suppress it.

After spending some time in the US and then Thailand where Matebele had enrolled at special schools, his mother returned home in 2010 and finding a suitable school became a struggle for the parents.

One of Matebele’s uncles who also had an autistic child recommended a school in Johannesburg but the school fees were too steep.
“If I remember well, the fee was close to M50 000 per quarter and we could not afford that at all,” Semakale says.

Eventually, they found an affordable school in Bloemfontein but the fees were still a burden.
A teacher at Leseli primary school, a school for children with special needs, asked Semakale to enrol Matebele there and at least give the school a year to see if they could assist Matebele with his educational needs.

Semakale says the teacher had told them that they didn’t have a specific programme for autistic children and that no parent had clearly indicated their child was autistic among their students, hence Matebele might be the first.

Matebele started his Standard One when he was eight years old.
“In two months we saw changes in Matebele. He was able to interact with other children, his speech was developing well too,” Semakale says.
He finished his Standard Seven and the struggle of finding an appropriate high school began.

Semakale says they enrolled him at one of the high schools in Maseru but within one year they had withdrawn him.
“The school is not a special school and teachers were unable to care and keep up with Matebele,” says the father.

Matebele was exposed to bullying and manipulative dagga smoking. Some children stole his jacket and ate his lunch.
“He told me all of this when he got home. We talk about everything and he never even left out the dagga smoking,” Semakale says.

He says he approached the school and authorities at the school said it was hard to keep watch and monitor Matebele because they had to concentrate on other children too.

“I obviously had to withdraw him from the school.”
Matebele was sent back to Lesedi and has been there moving between the computer lab, the library and classrooms.
Semakale has also hired someone to teach his child art and drawing which he has shown interest in all his life.

“He loves drawing,” says Semakale.
Matebele is the first born child and has a younger sister.
“They have a beautiful relationship together. They look out for each other and understand each other more than they do with anyone,” Semakale says.
At a time when Matebele seemed to be finally making progress, the lockdown set in and has presented new challenges.

“We talked to him about the lockdown and what will happen during the lockdown and what will not happen,” says the father.
They communicated corona as a disease and what is expected of everyone to keep safe. Washing of hands regularly, keeping social distancing protocols sanitizing areas and coughing and sneezing in a flexed elbow.
“People with autism do not want surprises. They need time to let things sink in and for them to understand issues,” Semakale says.

Under normal circumstances, Matebele and his sister are always indoors or at school. They are mostly not out playing with other children and so it was not hard keeping him indoors.
However, he questions why his father isn’t home during the lockdown if everyone is required to be home.

“I tell him it is because I do a job that people cannot live without. He cannot wait for the lockdown to be over,” says Semakele.
Some special needs children can experience a serious meltdown without the normal routine of school, says Morojele, the founder and principal of Maseru Special Edu-care and Autism Therapies Centre.
A meltdown is described by the NAS as “an intense response to overwhelming situations” and can include shouting or screaming, as well as physical lashing out.

Morojele’s centre was established in 2017 to answer to educational special needs of disabled children. It is a centre that demonstrates inclusive education and an enabling environment to those that have learning disabilities.

Morojele says the government needs to step up implementation of policies that assist children with special needs.
“We have beautiful policies but implementation is the biggest problem and it has been for the longest time” Morojele says.

According to Matšilo Nkabane in an article published in thepost titled Dealing with Autism published last year, like most mental disorder conditions, autism is a bewildering and complex condition.
“There is a general ignorance about it in Lesotho. Parents with autistic children don’t have enough knowledge about the conditions,” Nkabane says.

Keiso Mohloboli is a mother to a 15-year-old autistic boy.
She says the biggest challenge is that parents do not know how to cope with meltdowns and deal with the behaviour of autistic children.
There is very little awareness about issues of autism, she says.
The children suffering from autism are also discriminated against, she says.
“Some people even call them lihole,” she says.

“I am lucky because people say my child is respectful,” Mohloboli says.
She says her son is used to playing with children who are younger than him.
“I am raising an introvert. I am able to deal with things I couldn’t in the past,” she says.

In the past Mohloboli says she hardly talked to her son but she was later made to understand the need to start communicating with him even if he was not saying anything.
She says she does not shout at him because he retaliates in a defensive manner.

“We need to learn what our children like. My son loves music and not cartoons,” she says.
Mohloboli says she is not sure if her son understands anything about the coronavirus.

“I just told him that schools are closed and he understands. I also taught him that we need to wash hands first,” she says.
Mohloboli says Lesotho seems to have a very narrow understanding of special education.

“Special education is deemed to be education for the blind, the deaf and physically impaired and the likes. We have a long way to go to address issues of autistic children,” she says.

Rose Moremoholo

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