Small school, big challenge

2010-05-06 00:00

ALTHOUGH many autistic children look normal, they are not. This is a day-to-day challenge for Wendy Bloy, whose nine-year-old son, Richard is autistic.

“Because he looks like any other child, people expect him to act that way too and when he doesn’t people can’t accept it,” said Bloy.

“I couldn’t even take him back to the Cascades Shopping Centre, the noise was too much for him. It was like a complete sensory overload. He screamed and bit very hard, but he’s doing this less and less,” Bloy said.

Bloy owes much of Richard’s progression to the school that he attends.

Ethan House is a private school that is located on the premises of Maritzburg Christian School (MCS). MCS donated the house to the school and assists it with administration issues.

Ethan House, which opened in February 2006, only has two teachers, Tracey von Nieuwen- huizen­ and Dudu Ngubane, but Nicole Boreham, who has been at the school since it opened, often assists with the children who range in age.

“The school takes children from three years of age. The youngest of the six children who are currently at Ethan House is five,” said Bloy.

Ethan House has also not restricted children based on their disability.

“Not all the children here are strictly autistic, but most of them fall somewhere on the autism spectrum,” said Bloy.

Autism is a disorder that usually impairs a person’s social interactions and communication functions. It also affects the information processing in the brain. Although there is no cure for autism, skills development is extremely beneficial, often enabling autistic people to communicate normally with others.

This is one of the goals of Ethan House.

Boreham said that the reason they started Ethan House was because there was nowhere for these children to go.

“We understand that most schools can’t accommodate autistic children, so we take in anyone who isn’t accepted elsewhere.”

But Ethan House is a small school and therefore, with its current facilities, is unable to accommodate more than 10 children at a time.

Von Nieuwenhuizen and Ngubane have “created­ a loving environment that these children thrive under,” said Boreham, “and with their different behavioural problems we ensure that they receive the right amount of love and discipline. We also make sure that we are consistent with them.”

Since Ethan House opened it has “sewn three children into the mainstream system and although this is a major achievement, there are some children who will never be able to go to a mainstream school,” said Boreham.

Although they are aware of this, it does not hinder the attention and input that each child receives­.

“I praise the little things. I don’t expect big things. I do this job because I want to see the children­ grow into who they can be. And they have developed. When I arrived here the children used to hit and kick each other, but now they are able to mix socially with the MCS children,” said Van Nieuwenhuizen.

Boreham said that a lot more could be achieved with regard to the pupils’ progression, but the school does not have the funding to buy the teaching­ aids that are used internationally to teach autistic children.

Autistic children learn through visuals and the software that is used to teach children through pictures is rapidly developing.

“There are programmes with grids of pictures. The child clicks on a picture and the computer reads out what it is. These types of programmes teach children to speak and to read,” said Boreham.

The Ethan House children use less advanced computer software and grids of pictures on pieces of paper. They point to blocks to communicate with the teachers and their parents­. Although this is effective, the newer computer programmes are a lot more advanced and they are more likely to get the children talking instead of pointing.

“All the software is accessible to us, it’s just that the prices are out of our reach,” said Boreham.

Financial restraints have also forced the school to increase its fees.

“We understand that some people with autistic children can’t afford the fees, but what my heart would like to see is individual people sponsoring autistic children to come to Ethan House,” said Boreham.

“There are so many autistic children who aren’t getting what they need. I recently read that the Western Cape Autism Society reported that one in 86 children is autistic,” said Bloy.

April was Autism Awareness month and Bloy wishes that people would understand and accept that autistic people are different, rather than turn a blind eye to the disorder, which more children are affected by every year.




What is Autism?

Autism is a developmental disorder that begins at birth or within the first two years of a child’s life.

Autistic children are usually normal in appearance but have damaged sections of the brain that affect their communication abilities and behaviour.

Autism affects information processing in the brain by altering how nerve cells and their synapses connect and organize. How this occurs is not well understood.

Autistic children often have behavioural problems and often react in puzzling ways when put into a social space.

Restricted and repetitive actions are common traits of autistic children.

Autism is more common in boys than girls. The figure is 1:4.

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