Challenging taboos about autism in somalia
“I noticed problems with my son’s mental development when he was nine months old,” says his father Abdirahman Mohamed. “I am a health worker at Digfer Hospital so I know about medical issues. I could tell something was wrong.”
Ahmed Abdirahman Mohamed, who is now six years old, has been diagnosed with autism, a taboo subject in Somalia.
It is rare to find a parent who understands such disorders and has the courage to share their concerns with a doctor, let alone speak about them in public.
There is no Somali word for autism. Recently, a group of medical professionals, people with autism and their parents came up with some Somali terms for autism including ‘maangaar’ which means ‘unique mind’ and ‘maangooni’ which means ‘separate mind’.
“When I noticed Ahmed was facing challenges, I spoke to my wife. She didn’t understand anything but agreed that we needed to do something about it,” says Abdirahman.
He decided to take action immediately and was astonished to discover there was a school in Mogadishu for children with mental disabilities run by the psychologist Rahmo Abdiqadir Mohamed.
“There was no facility to care for and educate children with special needs so we founded the school in 2016 to fill the gap,” says Rahmo, the principal of Mustaqbal School.
Rahmo and her colleagues have all been trained in how to work with children with autism and other mental disabilities. All of Mustaqbal’s staff are women. They not only care for and educate the children but also watch out for signs of abuse especially in children who cannot speak.
Abdirahman enrolled his son in the school two years ago. He has made such good progress that the plan is for him to go to mainstream school in the near future.
“Ahmed’s cognition, sleep and speech have come on in leaps and bounds,” says Abdirahman.
Although some people are doing what they can to spread awareness about autism, progress is slow. Health workers have developed Somali films and factsheets about the condition. In April this year, the famous singer Aar Maanta released a song and video of the traditional counting song Kow featuring a child with autism.
“The majority of people in the Horn of Africa use insulting and derogatory words to describe people with autism,” he says. “When I was in Minnesota producing my bilingual children’s album, Ubadkaa Mudnaanta Leh, I met many Somali children with autism. The experience inspired me to make more inclusive music.”
It is hoped that the decision of parents like Abdirahman to speak openly about autism and other disorders will help break down taboos and reduce prejudice. His son’s progress at Mustaqbal school shows that with proper care and guidance such children can be helped to have a more positive future.