It’s a bright sunny afternoon in Nigeria’s capital city of Abuja, and in a small bungalow in a highbrow Maitama estate, about 20 children between the ages of two and seven sit in three separate classrooms. Each classroom has three circular tables with several chairs arranged around them. On the light green walls are colourful posters with different messages, signs and symbols. Inside an office beside one of the classrooms, speech therapist Charles Ugwuoke is teaching the mother of a child with special needs tips on how to properly connect and talk to her child.
Back in the classrooms, each student is attended to by a teacher, who gives their undivided attention. Each teacher patiently demonstrates an action or a word until the child grasps it. “Sometimes it takes days or weeks for our student to learn a task, and it is our duty to teach them patiently”, one teacher says, as she gives her student a congratulatory high five.
Although their ages and level of development are different, the children in this school share one thing in common; they are children who learn differently and so are receiving special education tailored to their needs. Dewdrops Community Centre for Special Needs, a nongovernmental, not for profit centre, provides specialised education and psychological support to children with special needs whose parents cannot afford the high cost of educating a special needs child. The Centre is one of the few institutions in Abuja which is working to make special needs education affordable through raising funds from grants and donations.
Children with special needs are born with cognitive or mental disabilities, which affects the way they socialise and learn. Paediatrician Dr. Anthonia Hananiya notes that various forms of special needs exist, from down syndrome, which affects a child’s physical growth and intellect, to autism, which affects a child’s social interaction and communication. Children with special needs often require specialized support through various aspects of their lives, including education.
A new paper from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), Education and Disability, presents the first in-depth analysis of available data for 49 countries. It confirms that persons with disabilities are less likely to ever attend school, more likely to be out of school and that they tend to have fewer years of education than persons without disabilities. They are less likely to complete primary or secondary education and are less likely to possess basic literacy skills. Sub-Saharan countries captured in this study include Ghana, Kenya, South Sudan, and Liberia. Nigeria was not one of the countries in the study, and the paucity of data means that we do not know how many children in Nigeria have special needs.
Diagnosing developmental delays early is critical
Early intervention to address developmental delays in a child with special needs can make a huge difference, Dr. Hananiya says, adding that this is where a big problem lies. “Most parents are not alert to the fact that their children could have a special need condition, even when the signs are clear,” she says. At every stage of a child’s development, there are certain traits children should exhibit and if they do not, it means they may require specialized care. Many Nigerian parents also do not practice well child visits, where children presumed healthy are taken to hospitals periodically to check their development. These visits offer an opportunity for clinicians to critically evaluate a child and refer to specialists if necessary.
In Nigeria’s religio-cultural space, nothing does more harm to children with special needs than the misplaced belief that a special needs diagnosis is spiritual and does not require care from medical and psychological experts. Some parents as a result seek help from traditional healers or faith homes, denying the child the opportunity of receiving expert intervention at a most critical stage.
Another detriment to getting children the proper care is self-denial, says Mrs. Aisha John Mark, mother to a five-year-old boy with special needs receiving care at Dewdrops. She says some parents accept the fact that their child has a special needs condition too late. Realising and accepting that her son had autism when he was about two months old provided her the opportunity of receiving guidance from experts, who helped her make informed decisions, one of which was taking him to a special needs school at the age of two.
Dewdrops: A safe haven for special children in the FCT
Finding a school in the FCT able to cater to the special needs of her child was a challenge Mrs. Biby Yinkere said she had to face. Mother to a lovely 7-year-old daughter who was diagnosed with down syndrome, Mrs. Yinkere says she enrolled her daughter in a regular school alongside her brother. The next day when she brought the two children to school, school authorities said her daughter could not stay at the school because the school did not have the capacity to take care of her.
This continues to be the case in the majority of both public and private primary schools across the country. Provision is rarely made for children with special needs by authorities of the schools. Even though some states have special schools for children with physical disabilities such as blindness and deafness, children with mental and cognitive disabilities do not quite receive the same support from the government.
For Yinkere, thankfully, the story did not end there. She says she met Mrs. Lola Aneke, Founder of the Dewdrops Centre, at an event, and learned she had a school for special needs children. Upon getting to the Centre, to her surprise she found exactly what she needed; a place willing, ready, and able to cater for the needs of her special child. Her daughter has now been at the Dewdrops Centre for 7 months and she says she has seen improvement in her cognitive skills. “Since she came here (to Dewdrops), she’s become very social, she interacts better with others,” she says.
So how does Dewdrops Centre work with these special children? Once a student enrolls, they are assessed and placed in one of the 3 classes, according to the severity of their disability, and individualised coaching and training is designed for them. Working with parents, clinical psychologists and paediatricians, every child’s progress is monitored closely.
Psychological Support: A game changer for special needs children
Aneke said the Dewdrops Centre provides psychological support for its students by partnering with clinical psychologists to train its teachers on how best to work with students. Teachers in turn step down this training to parents so that they can continue to work with their children at home. Dr Samuel Adekunle Jinadu is a clinical psychologist consulting with the Centre. He says that children with special needs can make significant progress once they are given the care, love and dignity that they need and deserve. And underpinning all these is providing the proper psychological support for them.
The Dewdrops Centre has another goal for its students, and it is ambitious. “Our ultimate goal is to mainstream these children into regular schools,” Aneke says. And with a smile she points out that the Centre has mainstreamed 8 of its students into regular schools since 2015. The Centre continues to work with the primary schools to monitor the progress of students that have been mainstreamed, and regularly provides training for teachers in the schools.
Aneke, who has a Master in Teaching (Special Education) from Meredith College in Raleigh, NC, is certified to provide care for 13 different disabilities. She has become a strong advocate for the rights of special needs children in the FCT and Nigeria. She regularly speaks on radio and organises events around increasing awareness for the issues that affect special needs children and their families. She is the Executive Director of the C.A.D.E.T Academy, a parent company to the Dewdrops Centre.
Financing the Centre continues to be a challenge, as providing the quality of care required is expensive. Aneke says that by limiting her class sizes to allow more individual attention for each student, she continually puts quality over profit. Another limitation the centre faces is its inability to meet the incredible demand by parents who want to enroll their children. “Several times we have had to turn people back because we are filled to capacity,” Aneke says, adding that she is certified to teach and continues to look for opportunities to provide training for other schools and organisations interested in working with special needs children.
Yinkere says, “The government needs to provide healthcare, affordable healthcare, for children with special needs. A parent with a special needs child should not automatically become a beggar.” Aneke says government should put in place policies but go beyond to execute them. In January, President Muhammadu Buhari signed into law the Discrimination Against Persons With Disabilities Prohibition Act. The act is explicit that all persons with disabilities including children are entitled to free medical and health services in all public hospitals. Implementing this law will go a long way in improving access to healthcare and education for children with special needs and aid their development.
In the meantime, centres like Dewdrops continue to do their best to provide affordable care for the special children in our midst to discover their potential, build their cognitive abilities, and learn that they have just as much a right… to live an independent life.
The month of April every year is the World Autism Awareness Month and April 2nd every year is World Autism Awareness Day. What are you or your organisation doing to provide help for children with special needs in this month? Please share with us.