Cameroon observed World Autism Awareness Day Saturday with rights groups advocating for autistic children to be given an education. Supporters say autistic children often can’t go to school because autism is falsely believed to be a result of witchcraft.
The Timely Performance Care Center, a school for disabled children in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde, organized a campaign for parents and communities to stop the stigma that autistic kids often are subject to.
The center has an enrollment of 70 autistic children.
The school’s manager, Betty Nancy Fonyuy, said autistic children are frequently kept at home because of stigma. She said many communities and parents abuse the rights of autistic children by refusing to educate them or give them the freedom to socialize with other children.
"We want parents to accept the children that God has given them and to be able to educate the society that these children are not a form of divine punishment for witchcraft or a class of any evil thing. These children have a lot to offer to society if given a chance. Give them the chance. The world needs to know what autism is. Accept individuals born and living with autism," she said.
Fonyuy said in January 2021, the center organized a door-to-door campaign to urge parents to send their autistic children to school. She said the response was encouraging, but that many parents still hide their autistic children at home.
To mark World Autism Awareness Day on Saturday, scores of community leaders, parents of autistic children and heads of educational establishments in Cameroon's economic capital, Douala, emphasized at an event that autistic children, like any other children, need love, care and education.
Among the speakers was Carine Bevina, a psychologist at the University of Douala.
Bevina said parents should enroll their children in school because the parents would find it difficult to train their autistic children on their own. Bevina spoke by a messaging app from Douala.
She said autism level one means that a child needs regular attention and help to surmount difficulties initiating social interactions and maintaining reciprocity in social interactions. She said autism level two means that a child has repetitive behaviors and requires substantial support, and autism level three means the child's communication skills are regressing.
Ndefri Paul, 45, is the father of an 11-year-old autistic child.
Paul said he came out on World Autism Awareness Day to tell anyone who doubted it that autistic children can compete with other children if well educated. He says in 2021, his autistic son, like many children without autism, wrote and passed the entrance examination to get into secondary school.
The educational talk at the Douala city council courtyard on Saturday was part of activities marking World Autism Awareness Day.
Similar activities were held in towns, including Bafoussam, a western commercial city, Garoua and Maroua on Cameroon's northern border with Nigeria, and Yaounde.
Officials in Cameroon say there are 750,000 autistic children in the central African state. Sixty-five percent of them are denied education.
Cameroon's Social Affairs minister, Pauline Irene Nguene, said communities should stop stigmatizing autistic children with the erroneous belief that autism is divine punishment for parents of autistic children. She said communities should denounce parents who hide autistic children at home and schools that refuse to teach children with the disorder.
The U.N. says that autism is genetic and families with one child with autism have an increased risk of having another child with autism. The U.N. says family members of a person with autism also tend to have higher rates of autistic traits.
World Autism Awareness Day celebrates the resilience of people affected by the disorder and supports causes that promote awareness of autism. Children in schools are educated about autism and encouraged to accept it. The U.N. launched World Autism Awareness Day for the first time in 2007.