By Tumininu Ojelabi Hassan
Guaranty Trust Holding Company Plc (GTCO), experts and Autism services practitioners have advocated for inclusivity for persons on the autism spectrum, as this promotes awareness and realization.
The experts, who addressed Journalists in Lagos during the Media Briefing on the 13th Edition of the GTCO Annual Autism Conference, 2023 with the theme: “Empowering voices for Autism,” emphasized the need to create a safe environment for persons with autism in the society.
The GTCO Autism Conference, an offshoot of the Orange Ribbon Initiative, has grown to become a reference point for autism advocacy and intervention in Africa, providing support and empowerment to thousands of people with neuro-developmental disorders.
Working with specialists and partner organisations within and outside Nigeria, the 2023 conference will feature lectures, panel discussions, and performances carefully prepared to showcase the diverse talents that exist in the autism community whilst also creating a platform for persons with ASD and their families to connect and share ideas with subject-matter experts on different aspects of autism spectrum disorder including its nature and management.
In Nigeria, the conference is scheduled to hold on the 24th and 25th of July, at the Muson Centre, Onikan, Lagos whilst the free one-on-one clinic will commence from July 26th to July 29th at the Chapel of Light, Alausa, Ikeja. Also in Ghana, the activities will begin with a workshop on the 1st of August at the University of Professional Studies, Accra, Ghana, and consultations will last from August 2nd to 5th at the same venue.
According to Mr. Segun Agbaje, Group Chief Executive Officer of GTCO, the conference is aimed at empowering the voices of persons on the autism spectrum, thereby ensuring they experience life to its fullest.
“Society thrives when diverse individuals with their distinctive voices, perspectives, and cultures are welcomed and celebrated. It is, therefore, important that persons on the ASD spectrum are given the chance to succeed and empowered to experience life to its fullest,” he said.
“We are excited about the evolving insights on the management of autism and remain committed to ensuring that more and more persons with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are able to find their voice and embrace their uniqueness whilst contributing meaningfully to society,” he added.
Tolulope Onipede, Head, Corporate Communications GTBank while addressing Journalists at the Media briefing held on 20th July, 2023, revealed that the objectives of this social responsibility intervention is to create awareness on ASD, foster improvement and support inclusive quality education.
“Our objective is to create awareness on ASD. It’s a lifelong commitment, we can’t say a child should only see a consultant once a year and that’s the end, we are with them all year round but once a year, we bring in experts from different parts of the world to one location, where people can bring their children.
“We have a lot of partners, we have experts, behavioural specialists, speech therapist and they are across the country. What we do after the annual autism conference is a continuous follow up and the parents will be the ones to initiate that. We make sure we are available and accessible through the partners that we have,” she stated.
“Another objective is to foster improvement. We speak to everyone and then to the care and managers of autism, the information improves, we interact with people and they share their experiences to ensure other people learn from it. Also, we support inclusive quality education and we have quite a number of inclusive schools around the country, the private owned schools and government owned schools,” she added.
With regard to the impact of the GTCO Annual Autism Conference, Remi Olutimayin, a Writer, Producer and Autism Advocate, said one of the impacts of the conference is to enhance self-awareness and realization of oneself as well as to halt the denial of mental breakdowns and ASD by people, especially the Generation X owing to discrimination and stigmatization they experience in the society.
Solape Azazi, Founder, Cradle Lounge Special Needs Initiative, emphasized the importance of sharing one’s experience and opening up about one’s struggle as this will encourage other people in the situation to speak out. According to her, GTCO’s Annual Autism Conference has created awareness, encouraged parents to accept the difference in their children and to seek help which would enable their children thrive on the spectrum.
Mrs. Oyinade Adegite, Chief Communication Officer, GTCO Plc noted that although the challenges are multifaceted, however, it is imperative to create safety for people who the society regard as different.
“As an organisation, we are first advocates because we believe that the universe/world is more inclusive but as human beings we tend to exclude. First of all, our mandate is to create safety for people, who the society regard as different. We are in a society, where you snooze, you lose, you can’t afford to be overwhelmed but you must know that it exists.
“Parents prefer to resist what exists and lock up these children. It’s like you are resisting something that exists and whatever you resist persists. Our first message and mandate is to create safety. We must create a safe environment for everyone. We are doing this because we understand that safety is first important for survival.
“Don’t stigmatize people, Let’s stop the stigma. It’s not the easiest thing to do, the challenges are multifaceted. We partner with people in the medical field, educators, who carry on the work throughout the year and are able to touch lives of Nigerians. We involve the Federal Ministry of Health, the First Lady to work on passing the bill on autism to attract the Government’s attention, we do this because we know we have the capacity to command this kind of attention,” she explained.
Osezusi Bolodeoku, Behavioral analyst and Founder, FOS ABA Centre & Creative Hub, reiterated the need to create awareness as this leads to accommodation and encourages parents living in denial to be bolder.
“It begins with awareness. Awareness leads to accommodation. When we are aware, Parents no longer live in denial. They are bolder. When we create accommodation for these individuals, this leads to acceptance, which is the safety she (Oyinade Adegite) is talking about. The goal is acceptance, the goal is inclusion, to have an environment where everyone is accepted. We know we are different but we are accepted and this starts with awareness,” she said.
Regarding the goal to expand the reach of this intervention to rural areas and suburbs, GTCO prioritizes inclusivity and is committed to reaching a large audience. For example, through a radio program “Let’s talk Autism” which runs on Bond FM, a Yoruba speaking radio station and going to remote areas like Abeokuta to educate them on autism.
The number of participants benefiting from the intervention has grown from one hall to two including a large online audience. In addition, many people, who have benefited from the free consultations at the conference are instrumental in propagating the objectives of the initiative. Also, through consistent conversations on these issues, a large audience will be reached.
Experts highlighted societal issues, lack of accommodation and lack of exposure to information as factors impeding reaching a larger audience, especially in the rural areas. To solve this problem, creating platforms through the media and support groups is key in conveying the message as this would encourage parents to speak out. It’s also necessary for parents to utilize the tips they receive during the free consultation.
To break language and communication barriers, GTCO has community members, who can speak the native language of the residents in the community, asides running a Yoruba radio program on Bond FM, they run a Pidgin radio program, including hiring sign language interpreters who interpret the sign language at the conference.
It is important to note that the cause of autism is unknown. However, according to Osezusi Bolodeoku, there is a likelihood that it is genetic, as children have habits from generations before them, although no research has proved its actual cause