COMMUNICATION teacher Pezo Samuhala Mumbi says it is important for society to accept that there are children with different conditions and that structures have to be put in place to support them.
Mumbi said children with autism might be limited with communication, poor social skills and behaviour challenges but can understand certain things and have their own way of communicating.
She said the prevalence of autism in Zambia was not known because there has not been research carried out on the condition.
“The ones we know are those that pass through our clinic after the doctor has diagnosed,” she said after a workshop organised by the Developmental Intervention Clinic to impart skills and knowledge to parents of children with communication, behaviour and cognitive challenges, and special education teachers.
Mumbi said autism could be classified as high functioning and low functioning.
She said high functioning autism is when a child is able to participate in society without too many interventions.
“They use words to communicate their needs and wants,” she said.
Mumbi said in low functioning autism, children are not able to cope and participate in society and have other challenges in terms of social interaction, cognitive skills and behaviour.
She said a parent should start worrying when he/she notices a delay in their child’s development milestone.
“Before talking about speech and language development, it’s important to distinguish the difference between the two terms. Difficulty with making speech sounds can affect how much others understand someone. If someone misuses their voice (through yelling, for example), it can lead to a hoarse voice. Difficulty with rhythm of speech is stuttering. Children can have difficulty with speech or language or both speech and language! If any of these milestones are not developing as expected, hearing screening is recommended as soon as possible to rule out hearing loss (or other developmental problems),” she said.
Mumbi said when a parent presents the child at the clinic, at the Paediatric Centre of Excellence, counseling usually starts on their first visit with the doctors and continues with the rest of team.
The clinic has two physiotherapists, occupational therapist, a communication teacher currently training as a speech therapist and a nurse consellor.
“We work together with the parents because we can’t continue pointing to them concerning the child’s condition. We let them tell us as well what they think. At the end of the day they are the ones in control of the child. As therapists, we can only do what’s best. The parent is the primary teacher at a young age and their interaction with the child has a significant impact on how well the child’s speech and language progresses. So it’s very important that we support the parent-child bond,” she said. “This is why even during our assessments, we tell them that your child is only seen once in a week and only for an hour and the rest of the time this child is with the parents or caregivers because they even know them better as they have lived together from the time the child was born.”
Mumbi said sometimes some parents might be keeping their children at home because of lack of acceptance of their child’s condition or they might not have heard of such services.
She said there were support groups where the parents meet and talk about their children’s conditions.
“Sometimes burdens are lifted once you get to hear how other parents are handling issues. We have a UTH parent support group and another one at Special Hope Networks. Sometimes these parents are already aware of the child’s condition and all they want is a second opinion. And at Paediatric Centre of Excellence, we also have a family support unit where we refer some of our clients for further counseling,” she said. “The Developmental Intervention Clinic is the only clinic that offers such services, so we get referrals from around the country. For these children outside Lusaka, we give them home programmes and follow them as they come for doctor’s review at UTH. There is a sister NDIC coming up in Ndola.”
Mumbi said children with autism must be treated like any other children because at some point they have to be independent in life.
“Parents, caregivers and teachers should know how they interact with them. Society has to accept that we have such conditions in the first place. Make the environment safe for them and have structures in place that suit them like schools or classroom set up and trained teachers to teach such children,” said Mumbi.
The DIC is a programme funded by the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).