Charity Chimungu Phiri :
When building a house, it's critical to lay a strong foundation. The same applies to education, with studies showing that children who attend early learning centers perform better in school than those who do not.
In Malawi, a 2003 national survey found that only 18.8 percent of school-age children with disabilities were attending class. More than twice as many of the same age group without disabilities (41.1 percent) attended school. This was mainly attributed to the lack of a disability-friendly environment.
"Since many children come from poor families, parents are often faced with the dilemma of choosing which child to send to secondary school, bearing in mind that the one with difficulties needs special care."-teacher Miriam Chimtengo
More parents are now sending their young ones to such special preschools, some as little as two years old. This kind of early intervention is especially critical for children with learning disabilities such as autism.
Most autistic children are diagnosed late in Malawi due to the lack of specialist doctors and caregivers, but also failure by their parents, guardians and teachers to recognize that the child has learning difficulties.
James Botolo* lives in one of the suburbs of Blantyre and has a 10-year-old autistic son named Chikondi*.
"For so long, we never could figure out what was wrong with our son. Of course he didn't like to play with his siblings at home and times he could talk to himself but we never thought it was anything. But what mainly bothered us was that he never did well in school, so we kept moving him from one private school to another. One day I met someone who alerted me that my son could have a learning problem," he said.
Autistic children often lack socialization skills, are hyperactive, struggle to pay attention and sometimes react to things by crying or hurting themselves.
Chikondi is now in standard two at the St. Pius X Resource Centre, a school for children with physical and developmental disabilities such as cerebral palsy, autism, dyslexia, epilepsy, hearing impairment, and blindness.
Currently in Malawi, there are over 40 resource learning centers for children with various disabilities.
Miriam Chimtengo, 41, is a specialist teacher at St. Pius X, where she teaches a class of about 27 students (16 full time).
Chimtengo, who holds a diploma in Special Needs Education, told IPS that there are major gaps in the social support system for the families of children with learning challenges.
"Even though we're laying this good foundation for the children, for most of them their education does not go further. The parents bring the children to us here at primary school where they will start noticing the changes, but after the child finishes standard 8, they just keep them at home…so all this work at the grassroots level is not sustained."
According to Chimtengo, there are limited resources for a child with learning difficulties to further their education.
"Since many children come from poor families, parents are often faced with the dilemma of choosing which child to send to secondary school, bearing in mind that the one with difficulties needs special care, special learning materials, full supervision and assistance, which might be hard to provide," she said.
"Some parents also believe they can better take care of their child alone at home than at school where they will not be around to protect their child."
Chimtengo said that those with physical disabilities such as visual impairments, deafness and limited limb mobility are more likely to go further in school than children with mental/emotional issues such as autism.
The other contributing factor is that there are no free services for poor families who wish to send their mentally challenged children to behavioral therapy. Only physiotherapy is free in government hospitals and at SOS Villages.
"For example, here in my class I have children whom upon assessment we recommended that they go for therapy, but only those parents who are financially better off have put up their kids in therapy…we have been lobbying with the government to make links with such specialists so that they are available for all children regardless of their financial standing,"
This scenario automatically puts a child with a learning disability at a disadvantage to later further their education or secure a job.
There are limited spaces offered to youth with disabilities in national vocational training schools in Malawi. They only take in a certain number, which is far below the actual population in need.
In other private vocational training facilities, the prerequisite for entry is a Malawi School Certificate of Education-MSCE (equivalent to a high school diploma), which many children with mental disabilities find hard to earn.
The Living Conditions study of 2013 found that many youths with various disabilities were frustrated with the large gap in the provision of vocational training services, as well as some other services such as welfare, assistive devices and counseling.
In 2015, the government launched a program called Community Technical Colleges aimed at helping poor children, including those with disabilities and lacking high school diplomas, gain access to tertiary education.
International experts on autism advise parents with learning difficulties to take a leading role to ensure that their child secures some form of employment.
The website Autism Speaks says it is important to encourage the child to network at community and family events to meet potential employers.
"Encourage your son or daughter to think about their hopes, dreams, interests and strengths as a way to start planning for employment. One of the most valuable resources for adults with autism is peer support and mentoring."
The other challenge in educating children with special needs in Malawi is lack of specialists both in the education and health sectors. For the whole of the commercial capital Blantyre, there is only one neurological doctor who sees patients twice a week at the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital.
There are many special education teachers, but are scattered across the country.
"Literature says that one special needs teacher should attend to five kids. But because of the increase of children, we're teaching more than that. This is challenging because different disabilities have different needs," said Chimtengo, the special needs teacher at St Pius X.
"It means in one lesson I should try to capture all the needs of every student, which takes a lot of time and effort. Our colleagues in the normal classes teach a class, but for us we teach individuals who need to be taught the things repetitively. We call it repetition and drilling," she said.