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Shedding light on autism

On August 10th, our outreach program, Autism Connects Tanzania, touched a population that is virtually ignored in this region. Parents, teachers and professionals from Arusha, Rau, Majengo, Mabogini, Korogoni, Kibosho, Siha and Bomag’ombe joined together for the first Autism Informational Workshop hosted at the Kilimahewa school.

The EdPowerment team of (Mama) Grace Lyimo, Kerri Elliott and Jillian Swinford, its local supporters, and the Kilimahewa staff worked tirelessly to get the word out about this first meeting for those impacted by autism. A tent, projector, flip chart, white board and other portable facilities were assembled behind our little school. Transportation costs and lunch, as well as notebooks, pens, autism informational handouts in Swahili and flip cards for picture communication were distributed to attendees.

The result – another milestone for the community! Nearly 70 parents and professionals were able to share their experiences, learn more about the condition and begin to build strategies for working with autism. All participants took away valuable information from the instruction led by Kerri, a special education teacher. For example, the few special needs classes that do exist in Tanzania today simply bundle all students in one classroom. The workshop introduced the concept of “differentiation” (a fundamental practice in the U.S.) to attending teachers, who can now consider some specific strategies to use among students with varied disabilities in their classes.

Moshi’s pioneering therapist in this area also shared her insights while waves of assent rippled through the audience as individuals described behaviors that mark their autistic loved ones.

In these communities, autism generally is not even identified. Therefore, autistic individuals can be misinterpreted as drug addicts, drunkards or other social pariahs. Today’s meeting was literally the first opportunity for many of these people to experience some kind of public acknowledgement of their daily struggle – to know that they are not in this alone.

Suggestions were many for future workshops, community support groups and educational seminars. Today was the first small step.