A Southern team is trying to improve the lives of African children who have an autism spectrum disorder.
Ruth Eren, endowed chair of special education and director of the Center of Excellence on Autism Spectrum Disorders; Stephen Hegedus, dean of the School of Education; Doreen Tilt, coordinator of training for the Center; and Shaylah McQueen, a graduate student seeking a Master of Science degree in special education, recently spoke to a group of United Nations ambassadors and ministers from Africa.
The meeting was hosted by Necton Mhura, U.N. ambassador from the Republic of Malawi. It came about at the request of Ugoji Adanma Eze, an international human rights lawyer who is an advocate for women and children.
Eren said she was asked by Eze to speak at the U.N. to present educational interventions for children with autism. Eren then asked Fred Volkmar, professor of psychology at the Yale University Child Study Center and an expert on the medical side of autism, to join the SCSU contingent in their presentation at the U.N.
“There is still a stigma in Africa attached to having autism,” Eren said. “Many misconceptions exist. Ugoji is trying to break through and educate people about what the disorder is and what can be done to help people – especially kids – who have it.”
In fact, Eze has proposed writing a book on the subject to educate the African populace, and has asked Eren to author a chapter.
Hegedus served as the keynote speaker at the U.N. session, where he focused on the stigma. To emphasize the point that there is no need for those with the disorder to be stigmatized, he held up a photo of a nephew of his who has an autism spectrum disorder.
“That really made an impact on the 30 or so people in that room,” Eren said. “By acknowledging that someone in his family is on the spectrum, it serves as a powerful example that there is no need for a stigma to be attached to autism.”
Hegedus said the stigma problem is a socio-cultural issue that should be addressed not only though the schools and parents, but through the churches. “The churches play a significant role in education in Africa,” he said.
McQueen spoke about the genetic component of autism, which was greeted by the audience. “I was privileged to be able to speak at the U.N. about this issue and I was greeted very warmly. They know that students of today represent the future.”