One school for autistic children in northern Namibia
It’s a cold winter morning at Circle of Hope Private Academy (Coha) in Ongwediva in the Oshana Region. The clock strikes 11:05, and the corridors are empty. Namibia is on lockdown due to the third wave of Covid-19 and schools are closed until 4 August.
Victoria Joel – the founder of Coha – sits in one of the classrooms. Despite being founded in 2011, the school’s operations only started in January 2019. This is not a mainstream school – it’s one for autistic children.
Joel has committed to breaking the stigma and misconceptions surrounding autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in Namibia. ASD is a group of complex developmental conditions of the brain that impair a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others, she explains.
Joel talks about how autistic children spend a substantial amount of time learning how to cope with an environment that is often out of sync with their abilities.
Coha is home to 15 children - three girls and 12 boys. There are no grades at the school. Instead, pupils aged two to four are graded using early childhood development programmes. In primary school, grades one to seven are taught on different levels depending on how learners respond to the curriculum.
They are grouped in mainstream classes according to their capabilities using junior and senior primary phase curriculums by the National Institute for Educational Development (NIED) and the education ministry. Meanwhile, the learners unable to the mainstream curriculum are taught the NIED’s curriculum for learners with intellectual disabilities.
Joel is passionate about advocating for people living with disabilities. In June 2011 while living in Swakopmund, she worked with Circle of Hope Youth Group. There, she realised there was other - more permanent - ways of working with children with disabilities.
In 2017, Senior Expert Service (SES) from Germany trained Joel in special needs education at the autism centre in Swakopmund, where she was later employed as a teacher’s assistant.
While at the centre, she attended various training to understanding ASD and teach children with autism. She also learnt an introduction to Makaton sign language and inclusive education conducted by a specialist from South Africa in collaboration with the Autism Association of Namibia.
Joel moved to Outapi in the Omusati Region in 2018 to volunteer at a public special school that enrolls children with learning difficulties.
“I found out that the teachers themselves did not have training in teaching children with special needs, nor any special curriculum or specialised teaching aids. It was mostly for slow leaners and they do not take in children living with autism, so the principal would send these children’s parents to me,” she says.
The school could also only accept a limited number of learners, leaving over 300 without a school to attend as they were not accepted into mainstream schools, Joel adds.
“Coha was established when parents reached out to me,” she recalls.
No data for autistic children
There are no figures for how many children, or adults, have autism in Namibia. Joel says it is a big challenge as there are few doctors who can diagnose ASD.
Without a diagnosis, parents cannot apply to get their children into specialised schools, she says, adding that the earlier the condition is identified, the better.
“Most of these children are not diagnosed. We have children in mental health hospitals who are autistic but are diagnosed as mentally retarded,” she says with a frown.
Music as therapy
Brian Mhlanga, a musician with a passion for children, helps to teach learners with unique learning abilities.
Mhlanga met Joel last year and assists her by improving the learning environment at the school.
“We are all that they have. If we understand and accept them, they can interact with other people. We are not trying to change them, but to help them fit into society. When you address them, they respond. We teach them discipline through music,” he said.
The school, however, does not have musical equipment - another challenge which needs to be addressed for learning to take place easily.
For now, Coha relies on Mhlanga to bring his own equipment.
One of the learners at the school is seven-year-old Tyappa Amon, who is non-verbal.
I arrive at their home just after 14h00.
Tyappa’s mother, Lovisa (36), welcomes me and introduces me to Tyappa and his elder brother, Nafimane.
“One can easily miss he is autistic, especially if they don’t stay [around for] long,” Lovisa says.
As we talk, Nafimane, who was playing with a soccer ball, sat down to listen to our interview. Tyappa, however, continues to play in the sand. Nafimane tries to discipline his brother, who is putting sand on his head.
Their mother explains that communication is a problem in their house. She wants Tyappa to learn how to point and say what he wants.
A question she gets a lot, she narrates, is whether she had a difficult pregnancy with Tyappa.
“For me, there was nothing extraordinary to the pregnancy. In fact, I don’t get difficult pregnancies. You can be with me up to seven months and you won’t know if am pregnant. No problems with smell, food, nothing,” she says.
Lovisa started noticing there was something different about Tyappa when he tuned two and hadn’t started talking.
He would rearrange things on the table, she says, and so she assumed he suffered from hyperactivity disorder of some sort.
She says a doctor suggested to her that Tyappa may be autistic. While watching a soapie on TV where a child had autism, she thought to herself that Tyappa was nothing like the child on TV. Little did she know that autism has a spectrum.
“We then visited the occupational therapist who concluded that he was autistic. Before that, we were concentrating on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) because I felt he was using his potty, he can eat on his own so he cannot be autistic,” Lovisa says.
She mentions that when you have a child with autism, it’s important to get support. The day-to-day care of children with autism can be stressful.
“Making sure your child gets the help they need can also pose a challenge, depending on whether quality support services are available in your area. At the same time, you are likely to have ongoing worries about your child's prognosis and long-term well-being. In these times of Covid-19, you have anxiety as a parent that should I die, who will take care of my child?” she says.
Lovisa urges that discrimination against autistic children should stop, saying there’s more to life than meets the eye.
“For me to have been on a bus to Windhoek and the lady sitting next to us kept saying I didn’t discipline my child because he couldn’t sit still broke my heart in so many ways. I couldn’t wait to get off the bus,” she narrates.
Tyappa makes a noise to alert his mother that it’s time for his afternoon meal. He eats his food - bread and sauce - seated on a green plastic chair at a blue table. She mentions that is favourite meal, along with rice, as he – like many children with autism – is a picky eater.
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