Understanding autism and special educational needs in the African context

Spread This News

MANY countries in southern Africa have made huge strides and progress in education to date. The level of literacy in Zimbabwe, for example, is said to be over 90%. Despite this rosy picture however, there is a worrying side to the education provision in Zimbabwe and in Africa in general.

The Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education in Zimbabwe carried out a study in 2015 and reported that more than 1.2 million children were out of school. Among these children is one particular group that is affected the most. These are children with Special Educational Needs and/or Disability (SEN/D). The conditions covered under SEN/D are wide and varied and in the next articles, I will be going through each one of the most common ones and relate them to the African context.

About 93 million children under the age 15 worldwide have a form of SEN/D, from moderate to severe and in sub-Saharan Africa the percentage is even higher. According to a UNICEF Report in 2016, “one third of the 58 million children who are out of school globally are children with disabilities, and more than half of these live in sub-Saharan Africa.”

In Zimbabwe, therefore, if more than 1.2 million children are out of school, we can estimate that over 400,000 children are being denied access to the education system, particularly those with Autism, Global Developmental Delay, Down Syndrome, Social Emotional and Mental Health, Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties, and those with hearing or visual impairments, just to mention a few.

What is Special Educational Needs and/or Disability?

A child or young person can be defined as having SEN/D if they have a learning difficulty or disability that can only be addressed by making a special provision other than that for their peers. This means they have a significantly higher level of difficulty in learning compared to the majority of their peers and their condition creates barriers to learning that prevent the child or young person or adult from accessing the education and facilities that others seem to access with ease. This difficulty may be in the form of a physical or mental impairment or both.

The reasons why children with SEN/D are “denied” access to education are wide and varied and quite complex. While Zimbabwe is a signatory to the UNESCO’s Salamanca statement and framework for action on Special Needs Education, it does not have any specific SEN/D policy or legislation that forces schools and educational institutions to make provisions for SEN/D children or young people.

To make matters worse, there is a huge shortage of SEN/D practitioners or teachers with adequate training, expertise or experience in the field, especially considering that the same teacher has to handle a very huge class. Furthermore, the level of social stigma with regards to SEN/D in Africa in general is quite high, especially in rural areas. The facilities and resources that are needed to cater for SEN/D provisions are not even considered a priority by many schools.

There is still a huge culture of discrimination against those with SEN/D and this even comes from parents too. Many families place educational priorities on the most able. For this reason, the full capabilities of children with SEN/D are never realised. A child with Autism/Asperger’s can easily achieve higher outcomes than their non-special needs peer but if they are denied access to education, this can never be assessed or realised.

Teachers who have never experienced SEN/D in their own families or lives also tend to be a barrier. They have a poor understanding of the child and consider that child a waste of space and are sometimes quite hostile to the idea of inclusive education, just as some parents do not want their children to be educated in the same class as a child with SEN/D. Some schools refuse to enrol SEN/D children.

It is with this in mind that Kings College-SA was born. The main idea behind Kings College-SA as Charity Organisation in Zimbabwe is the educational inclusion and social development of all children in general and children with Special Educational Needs and/or Disability in particular as well as the provision of such support from ages 0 to 25 and beyond.

The College will expand the mainstream teaching already existent in other educational institutions countrywide by integrating a focus on education, health, well-being, social and economic development, targeting groups of individuals who are excluded from communities due to their special needs or disability or other reasons and conditions. This will be achieved through nursery, primary, secondary and tertiary education, professional development, skills training and independent living skills as detailed in the College’s curriculum.

Establishing such a College reinforces and helps realise the idea that no one should be left out, and the focus on Special Educational Needs and/or Disability will lead to greater independence and self-sufficiency for those with such conditions; living fulfilling lives and realising their ambitions and high aspirations with an education that enables them to achieve their potential as children and adults and as members of the community.

According to the UNICEF Regional Study of Eastern and Southern Africa (2016), ‘Education is a right that belongs to all children – including children with disabilities. A child’s development is rooted in education as it impacts the entire life course. Access to quality education has immense potential to enhance social and economic security and reduce poverty. Indeed, it ensures confidence and literacy, and full participation in society. As well as being a right in itself, a child’s enrolment in school is protective against harm, including child marriage, child labour and trafficking for exploitation’. Kings College-SA aims to realise this goal for all children, especially in Southern Africa where ‘children with disabilities are disproportionately affected by a lack of access to education’.

Additionally, the College will start filling an existing gap in the provision of affordable and government-sponsored programmes of study in educational, health and social inclusion offered by mainstream education. Once fully-developed, the College programmes will offer students several options/choices; whether the students are autistic, have Downs Syndrome, severe learning difficulties or other such disabilities. This will have a major impact on student learning by providing students with opportunities to acquire the essential skills for independent living. Through its SEND Teacher Training programmes, the College aims to recruit the best graduates with similar conditions or qualifications.

The rationale behind the establishing Kings College-SA, with a specific focus on making provisions for children/adults with Special Educational Needs and/or Disability, lies in the definition of what special educational needs are and how the attitudes and beliefs of African society towards mental and physical impairment – the educational approach; and research – have shown about the need for this provision.

Children with special educational needs require dedicated qualified teachers trained and equipped with the skills, understanding and experience necessary to meet their educational, social and health care needs and this cannot be met by an ordinary class teacher in an ordinary classroom. Failure to address the need for this provision is tantamount to discrimination, exclusion, segregation, “othering”, stigmatisation and the results are continued poverty and the deprivation of economic and social well-being of those who are already disadvantaged. This is the only way to achieve equal social and economic justice.

Our children need immediate access to special education provisions to minimise and eventually eradicate this gap, in the most practical way possible. This does not mean excluding these children from mainstream classes, separate from non-special needs children, but wherever possible and to the highest extent possible children with SEND should be educated with those without; and where the severity of SEND is such that progress cannot be sufficiently achieved, have separate classes or educational facilities.

Special Needs Education itself is a need. If it is implemented as intended, it makes a huge difference. Special Needs Education is all about the needs of the individual. It focuses on helping the specific individual difficulties and how to overcome them. There is no “one size fits all” approach. Special Needs Education is inclusive. It allows children with disabilities to learn with those without and the adaptive nature of the interaction brings positive results. Each child learns in their own way within the regular education system with some extra support, along with their peer group, except in exceptional circumstances.

Special Needs Education allows the curriculum to be adapted, provide appropriate assessment methods, use multi-level instructional approaches, and increased attention to diverse student needs and individualisation. Schools become centres of learning, caring, nurturing, and supportive educational communities where the needs of all students are met in a true sense and previously excluded groups become part of the “normal”, real people in their wide and diverse situations.

Providing special needs education is a necessity as there is evidence that mainstream schools are not always willing to enrol SEN/D students and where they do, there is no specialist provision in place. In some cases, children with SEN/D fail to go to school all together because the nature of their SEN/D makes it difficult to access the schools due to location, distance or transport. Most schools put all SEN/D in one bracket without proper assessment of specific needs and even if the needs were identified, there is only concentration on the most obvious as teachers are inadequately trained or lack resources to make adequate effective provisions or interventions. To compound this problem, many parents in parts of Africa still do not think girls should receive education, especially if poverty is a factor. For a girl who has SEN/D this is a double tragedy.

Kings College-SA aims to address all these issues by making awareness campaigns as well as enrolling without discrimination and impressing upon parents and all authorities responsible the need for such a provision by:

Ø  developing and implementing programmes that support the right of children with SEN/D to access education good outcomes
Ø  publicising what constitutes SEN/D versus public misconceptions
Ø  providing an SEN/D friendly learning environment
Ø  providing initial SEN/D teacher training and Continuing Professional Development and Research
Ø  making necessary and effective interventions early enough to minimise barriers to learning

About the author: Levi L. Zindi has a Masters’ Degree in Special Educational Needs and Disability. He is also a holder of the National Award for Special Educational Needs Coordinators (NASENCOs). He is the Executive Director and one of the founders of Kings College-SA. For further information on Kings College-SA enrolment or programmes in Zimbabwe email or WhatsApp +447775423063