Imagine being locked up in a room for a day with food passed to you through a window by your own parents and your siblings. Through the window you see your siblings playing each day, but you cannot join them because you have been imprisoned in your own home just because you have a disability.
That is the plight of young Oforiwaa, a 12 year old girl suffering from severe autism.
Peeping through the same window from which foods and drinks are passed to young Oforiwaa daily, I saw her playing with several toys and seemed to be content with them. She was locked up in a room with the door knob only on the outside. My eyes were filled with tears. The tears could not be held back. It streamed down my cheeks.
In that moment of grief, something else happened. I heard a loud scream emanating from her room and I saw Oforiwaa banging her head on the wall but the family members looked on unconcerned.
I was curious and alarmed so I inquired from a family member the motive behind her seclusion from her siblings. To my surprise, she told me Oforiwaa is even lucky to be locked up in the room.
According to her, if they were to be in their hometown, she would have been killed or thrown into the evil forest for being a child from the river.
So I asked her whether she knew about Autism but she carelessly told me her niece’s condition is spiritual.
The family member told me, Oforiwaa was born with the disability in the United States but her parents brought her to Ghana because they believe the disorder is a curse. The doctors in the US could not diagnose the actual cause of the disorder, she explained.
In Ghana, she said they tried all sorts of remedies including sending her to prayer camps to get the supposed curse revoked but all to no avail. They have therefore decided to imprison her in her own house.
I was not surprised at her ‘ignorance’ about the disorder because in most communities in Ghana, pejorative labels and unkind treatment are meted out to people with disabilities.
These treatments are considered justifiable due to the strong belief that disability are as a result of a curse placed on an individual from the gods, for committing offenses in the community or to the gods.
This public attitudes and perceptions about persons with disabilities in Ghana have created a situation that lead to the further isolation and stigmatization of persons with disabilities.
Autism is a complex developmental disorder that typically affects a person’s ability to communicate, form relationships, and respond appropriately to the environment.
This results from a neurological disorder that impedes normal brain development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills.
Autism affects four times as many boys as girls and usually manifests itself during the first three years of life.
There is no definitive cause or cure, but specialized interventions can give people affected by Autism the tools they need to lead full and productive lives.
Globally, it is believed that one out of every 500 children is autistic, making it more common than diabetes.
I know young Oforiwaa is not alone in this. Children with this disorder are incarcerated by their families to prevent being stigmatized in society.
It is worrying that autism is a disorder prevalent in Ghana yet little or no attention is paid to the training of victims.
My experience with young Oforiwaa led me to the Autism Awareness Training Centre (AATC) in Accra where special care is given to children with autistic tendencies.
The centre provides training and educational services to children with autism in order for them to function more effectively in the society.
Founder of the Centre, Serwaa Quaynor who also has an autistic child was moved to tears by Oforiwaa’s plight.
She said parents who lock up their autistic children in rooms must have their heads re-examined because “no normal human being will be locked up a fellow human beings in a room”.
Mrs. Quaynor noted that currently there is no cure, however many persons with autism improve greatly with therapy.
She said parents must understand that secluding their autistic children would rather worsen the situation.
“When I heard my son had autism, it was like a death sentence but now I know better. I have been able to train him so he is working now” she added.
Serwaa Quaynor urged parents to seek early help for their autistic children before it is too late because someone born with autism will have it their entire life.