Autism month celebrated

On Wednesday S.E.N.E.S.E. Inclusive Education Support Services and its partners joined in celebration of Autism month at the Samoa International Cricket Association headquarters, Tuana’imato. 

The month of April every year is dedicated to all those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (A.S.D.) to create awareness of the condition, which is a developmental disability that affects the way people communicate, behave, or interact with others. 

This year’s theme is “Inclusion in the Workplace” with emphasis on the Challenges and Opportunities in a Post-Pandemic World”. The theme challenges us to be more inclusive in our approach to persons with Autism in the workplaces, schools, churches and all other communities. 

Despite the challenges we face in our effort to support inclusion, there is always hope for opportunities. These words were echoed in the words of Mrs. Ladesha Stevenson-Papalii’s keynote address, which followed an opening prayer by Fr. Mikaele Tuimavave, director of the Catholic Schools in Samoa.

Stevenson-Papalii is the Chairwoman of the S.E.N.E.S.E. Board of Directors and spoke about her personal experience as a mother of a child with autism.

"I am a mother to a six-year-old little boy with autism. Lucas was diagnosed high on the spectrum with Autism Spectrum Disorder when he was under two years old. He had and still has all the symptoms..."

According to SENESE, autism can present differently in different people and there is no known single cause for it. However, the earlier the detection and treatment for autism, the more it is likely to be effective. 

Symptoms can be: poor eye contact, flapping of arms or rocking, poor co-ordination, selective hearing, fixation on things, short attention span, acts without thinking, continuous yelling, non-verbal.

S.E.N.E.S.E. promotes inclusive education and equal opportunity for all children with disabilities, with dedicated and trained staff, resources, networks and contacts to assist parents in getting their child assessed for autism. 

They also assist with referrals to specialists, providing information on A.S.D., on teaching techniques to help with communication and gross and fine motor skills. 

The not-for-profit organisation believes that with communication made easier with social media, and information now at our fingertips, you only need to make the enquiries to start the ball rolling. 

Stevenson-Papalii said she was in denial when she first took her son for assessment. 

"When I took him to New Zealand to be assessed I was in denial like I think a lot of parents are when someone says something is wrong with their child. When the doctors confirmed he was autistic, I grieved for the lost dreams and hopes I had for him, for his future," said Stevenson-Papalii.  

"The doctors didn’t help me at all in dealing with all the overwhelming information, acronyms, the treatments, specialists, what I should be doing and what not to do. I came back to Samoa with Lucas confused and deeply overwhelmed and sad for my son. 

"All I kept thinking was that he wouldn’t be able to have friends, attend school, university, have a job, play sports. That’s what I thought." 

The S.E.N.E.S.E. Chairwoman added that there is hope for any child and parent, with the love and support of their community. 

"[...] there is hope that a child with autism can get better as they get older with love and support. Today Lucas is six years old and rules our house. He has his own personality and knows how to get what he wants. 

"He enjoys the outdoors, swimming, singing, playing catch and playing chase with his sisters and cousins. He loves cars, especially trucks and I think one day he could be a mechanic just like his dad when he grows up. 

"If you give your child love, acceptance and a chance to improve and grow, they will. It may take a long time trying to find what fits but changes will come and you will celebrate the simple and small things that people take for granted. 

"Lucas has taught me a lot about acceptance and inclusion of people who are considered different. It’s about changing the mindset of our community, not of our child’s. 

"To the parents of children with autism or down syndrome or hearing impaired, whatever the disability there is always hope for your child. Don’t give up, keep asking for help," said Stevenson-Papalii. 

Other parents spoke to the Samoa Observer, including Asafo and Ana Paletaoga who shared similar experiences in raising their 10-year-old son Leatuolo. The couple said that they had realised that although they needed to be amenable to their son's needs, they also wanted to ensure he was treated the same as other children. 

For Talanoa and Tofa Sale, they shared some words of advice for young parents who they believe are pushing responsibility on to the grandparents, to take care of an autistic child. The couple from Asau said parents should never shirk their responsibilities and should put the care of their child first. 

Acting Director, Mr. Sagato Vaoliko said that S.E.N.E.S.E. is grateful for the ongoing support of the Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture, and other partners namely Samoa International Cricket Association, Special Olympics Samoa, Rugby League Samoa, Loto Taumafai, Aoga Fiamalamalama, Nazarene Pre-School, parents and all children who attended this very special celebration.

The day's celebration included fun sports activities provided by Samoa International Cricket Association, Rugby League Samoa and Special Olympics Samoa. 

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