Kenya-Vermont connection brings help to autistic children

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WESTMINSTER — Wanda Salter met Sellar Atieno two years ago, when the Bellows Falls Union High School teacher first went to Kenya.

Since then, the two special educators have forged a professional and personal bond — all in the name of reaching African children on the autism spectrum.

Atieno, who is the director of the Kakamega County Educational Assessment and Resource Centre in Mumias, Kenya, has been in Vermont for the past six weeks learning all she can about teaching and reaching kids with autism.

During her visit, she is staying with Salter's mother, Ruth, who lives next door to the Salter-Roy family in Saxtons River. Salter is a speech pathologist with the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union.

"We are really sisters from a different mother," said Atieno, who grew up speaking English in the former British colony.

She wants to establish the first publicly-funded school for children with autism at her center, which now has a classroom (created in part by Salter's earlier Vermont fund raising) for the special needs children. That classroom opened in February 2018, and the two women hope to eventually open a boarding school for the Kenyan autism students, since travel in Kakamega is extremely difficult.

In a joint interview at BFUHS this week, Atieno and Salter said that children in Kenya who have autism are often hidden away, and are a source of embarrassment to their families.

They are abused, neglected and sometimes even killed, said Atieno. "Most of them are hidden," she said.

"In our country, a child with a disability is considered a curse," said Atieno. "A curse," she said for emphasis.

She said her mission is to educate parents and the community, and to convince many parents to let their children come out of the shadows and receive the help they need.

"Disability is not a curse," she said, saying her center focuses on early intervention.

"My coming here is really a big advantage, and I'm acquiring a lot of skills," she said.

Atieno started taking an online course offered by the University of Vermont, and she will continue taking it once she returns to Africa next week, with her final project being a Vermont student.

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Atieno, who works for the Kenyan Ministry of Education, said that dealing with children with autism "was a big challenge."

Coming up with a curriculum is still a problem, she said.

During her visit to schools in the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, she has spent time with the BFUHS life skills class, and a day at Central Elementary, as well as time at the Bellows Falls Middle School. She also visited the Cedarcrest School in Keene, N.H., as well as the Saxtons River Village Early Learning Center.

She also went on home visits in New Hampshire with a physical therapist.

Salter usually makes two trips a year to Mumias, Kenya. She is returning in February, along with another BFUHS teacher, to work on the program. They will be working to help train teachers who will be handling those special "learners," Atieno said.

Kakamega is a huge county with 1.7 million in population, according to a 2009 census, in a country with close to 50 million residents. Kakamega covers 3,000 square kilometers, and is on the western border with Uganda, Salter said.

Salter first got involved with Mumias through her volunteer work with Yellow House, a Kenya-based organization that brings volunteer speech therapists to schools. Yellow House sent Salter to Atieno's center.

One of the big differences in treating students on the autism spectrum, Atieno says, will be mainstreaming. In Vermont, the emphasis is on mainstreaming, while in Kenya, separate schools and classes seem to be a better choice so that the special needs children get the attention they need.

Classroom size in Kenya often exceeds 60 students, she said, and special needs students quickly get lost.

She said Vermont and New Hampshire schools use a lot of computers to help the students, something that won't be available in Kenya.

The number of children on the spectrum seems to get bigger every year, both Salter and Atieno said. There is no known cause for the disability, which manifests in a child's lack of interest, little or no eye contact with others, and a loss of language. Children on the spectrum run the gamut on the cognitive level, Salter said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says one out of 59 students are on the autism spectrum, or 16.8 per 1,000 students.

"In Kenya, the number is high," Atieno said.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or 802 254-2311, ext. 154.


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