Saturday, 29 March 2014

Time to raise awareness on Autism in Kenya

A devastating story in one of the local dailies tells of an autistic girl who was raped in Kariobangi. This is just a glimpse into the world of autistic children in Kenya. Autism is a condition that children are born with. It affects their behavior, social skills, and learning and communication skills. An autistic child is often incapable of expressing themselves so as to be easily understood. Often times the child does not speak as in the case of Anne from Kariobangi, who could not shout or scream when her rapists attacked her. It’s just tragic that people with mental health issues often fall prey to sexual violence.
This country isn’t known for its progress in the mental health sector, in fact Kenya government has shortchanged the population for decades when it comes to mental health. According to a report by Dr. Lukoye Atwoli, Chairman of the Kenya Medical Association, Eldoret Division, it is estimated that upto 10-15% of our population suffers from common mental disorders including depression, anxiety and somatisation. See:
For parents of children with mental health challenges like Autism, life is hellish in Kenya. For starters, it’s very difficult to access the right doctors who can help give a diagnosis on the child’s mental health status.  A lot of autistic children are misdiagnosed around the world. In Kenya the chances are very slim that an autistic child will receive the right medical attention at the right stage in their lives so that proper care and treatment is administered.
The statistics on Autism in the US say that 1 child out of every 68 children could be autistic. There are currently no reliable figures from Kenya and no way of knowing just how many children have this condition because they are hidden away from society by their families.
Abigail (Abby) Brooke is a talented young photographer who has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of Autism in individuals who are considered “High functioning”. High functioning autism means that the individual may have similar challenges with other autistic people but they have managed to overcome those challenges or some of the problems have stopped manifesting over time.
Abby missed out on being properly diagnosed at an early stage and was diagnosed at age 13. Since then, Abby and her supportive family have done everything they can to learn as much as possible about Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. Abby is now 30 years old, and is working on her own awareness project called Walking Autism.
When you first meet her, Abby is a bit shy, because she still struggles a bit in social settings. But once you get her talking about Africa and her project to raise awareness that is when you see the fire and determination in this beautiful young woman. Abby hasn’t had an easy life – she suffered such great discrimination and depression that at age 21 she attempted suicide. It was not easy for her to recover from that low point in her life, but she strives harder every day.
While a lot of autistic people have challenges when it comes to being able to look after themselves, Abby is surprisingly independent. Walking Autism is a project where she intends to trek across Kenya and later across Africa to raise awareness on autism and also to fundraise towards educational programs for autistic children. She began her first trek from Rumuruti to Nanyuki in Laikipia County this week and is expected to arrive in Nanyuki on 2nd April, in time for World Autism Awareness Day. Abby will have covered over 100 kms in her trek.
It’s no secret that mental health issues are largely considered some kind of taboo in this country and that abject neglect and horrific conditions will meet you when you dare to visit Mathari Mental Hospital. It’s just saddening and maddening that Mathari is the only government facility of its kind and that access to mental healthcare for majority of Kenyans is next to impossible.
In his ‘State of the Union address’, President Uhuru Kenyatta did not even mention mental healthcare rather a reiteration of a promise to give free maternity care for women. It’s been a year full of theatrics, intrigue and suspense surrounding the Laptop project for children and the sum total result of that endeavor is that finally the tender issued was cancelled.
Why not forget about giving laptops to kids who don’t even have classrooms? Why not put all that energy and funds into providing adequate healthcare and support to families with children who have mental health challenges? That would certainly make more sense!
Never the less, even where the government refuses to meet its obligations there are some brave individuals who try and do the best they can, and Abby Brooke is one such individual.  It’s time to raise awareness on Autism in Kenya, and that is exactly what Abby is doing. Bravo!

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