Children with autism excluded from schools

Parents picket in Gqeberha

By Joseph Chirume

4 April 2022

Parents of children with autism picketed outside the Gqeberha City Hall on Friday demanding government responds to a range of welfare and societal issues around autism. Photo: Joseph Chirume.

More than 100 parents of children with autism picketed on Friday outside the Gqeberha City Hall. The demonstrators were members of Autism Matters South Africa, an organisation formed in January 2022 to lobby for the welfare of children affected by autism.

Founder of the group, Nomathembu Qosha, said they fight stigma and advocate for social acceptance and a better understanding of autism.

“We want the Department of Health to diagnose children when they are young, not at five years of age as is the norm,” she said.

Qosha said the main issue is schooling, with long waiting lists for special schools. She said many children don’t go to school until they are adults.

The Quest School is the only government school in the Eastern Cape dedicated to learners with autism.

Nzuki Magwashu, a single mother with a 14-year-old autistic child, tried for years to get her son into Quest. She lives in Zwide and used to pay R1,600 a month for him to attend a special school in Newton Park. She has now found a much cheaper school, but it is also private.

She said Quest School said her son “did not meet their requirements despite him having verbal challenges and other conditions of autism”.

Magwashu said it took her years to convince the Department of Social Development of her son’s condition. He only started receiving a disability grant in 2021.

Parent Xoliswa Siwani has both an autistic daughter and son, aged 10 and 13. They attended preschool but have never been to primary school.

Siwani said she stopped work to look after her children. “I only get a government grant for my son; I am struggling to get a grant for the girl,” said Siwani.

Among other demands, the petition called on the Department of Education to provide more schools, inclusive classrooms, and online learning programs for autistic children; the Department of Social Development to increase grants, provide occupational therapy at homes, and carry-out more awareness campaigns; the Department of Health to reduce waiting periods to see specialists, and have more trained speech and occupational therapists.

The group also wants the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality to provide land for autism facilities and raise awareness.

Mzwandile Mlinganiso, a senior education specialist, received the parents’ petition on behalf of the education department. Nadiama van der Bergh received it for the health department. Mayco Member for Roads and Transport Itumeleng Ranyele received it for the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality.

Eastern Cape Department of Education spokesperson Mali Mtima did not respond to our requests for comment.