Dire shortage of school places for autistic children

There are currently 133 children on the waiting list at Quest School for Learners with Autism, the only public specialist school in Gqeberha

By Joseph Chirume

3 February 2023

Autism Matters founder Nobathembu Qosho doing a lesson with some learners who have autism and have not yet been given placement. These classes are held at Coega Primary School in Wells Estate, Gqeberha. Photo: Joseph Chirume

Gqeberha parents of children who have autism are up in arms with the provincial education department and believe more should be done to create more placements at Quest School for Learners with Autism.

Quest is the only government school in Gqeberha that specialises in the education of children with autism aged five to 18.

There are currently 133 children on the waiting list at Quest, said Mali Mtima, spokesperson for the Eastern Cape Department of Education.

Mtima said that later in the year, the department plans to open “an autism wing” at Merryvale Special School in Gqeberha. This school currently only caters for children with severe intellectual disabilities.

“We have already placed 28 learners at Merryvale and allocated four educators for the Autism Wing,” said Mtima.

But Nobathembu Qosho, founder of Autism Matters South Africa, said that only two of the 11 public special needs schools in the province cater for autistic learners.

“There are too many children on the waiting list. Quest is the only school offering boarding facilities for autistic children and the school is overcrowded. There are more than 1,000 children in the province, some have been on the waiting list for several years and the number grows each year,” said Qosho.

She said research done by Autism Matters in 2022 revealed that there are far more children with autism waiting for placement than the numbers recorded by the department. “Many parents are sitting at home with their autistic children out of ignorance or the lack of relevant information,” she said.

In an effort to have their plight heard, a dozen members of Autism Matters met in Wells Estate last Saturday to discuss their challenges seeking help from the department. This also followed a protest outside the Gqebera City Hall in April last year, calling for the department to provide more schools for autism and provide occupational therapy at homes, among other things.

Qosho said, “We have been lobbying for the government to donate abandoned schools so we can use them to teach our children. We have qualified educators willing to do the job.”

Nontebeko Mtakati from KwaDwesi said she has been sent from pillar-to-post for several years to find a place for her son who is now 15. “Educators at Luthando Luvuyo Special School said my son was troublesome so I had to pull him out. It is a school for [physically] disabled children not specifically for those with autism,” said Mtakati.

Delicia Petersen from Kleinskool said she has spent a lot of money enrolling her nine-year old daughter at different centres for disabled children.

“I enrolled her at a school in Chatty, paying R300 per month. Educators at the school were not trained on autism, so they complained about her behaviour. I then enrolled her at Sinako special school paying R1,500 per month. The department called me for her to do an assessment in 2018 and again invited me in 2022 but I was on maternity leave. That was the last time I heard from them.”

Mtima said the department has since availed some classrooms at the Coega Primary School in Wells Estate for Autism Matters to use. They are teaching about 27 children with limited resources.