When I was a child, I frequently spent my holidays together with other children in my extended family. One of them was Ferdinand, a cousin’s cousin. He was different from us in several ways and we thought he was pretty weird.
Ferdinand was neither interested in our role plays nor in interested in following our conversations about where to go the next day or what to do the day after tomorrow. The only topic he seemed to be interested in was doing calculations. Not simple ones, but calculations about how much fuel he would need to reach the moon or distant galaxies. He made drawings of rockets and other flying objects. They were pretty advanced and whenever we showed any interest, he would lecture us about stars and how to reach them.
Most adults talked about him as being "a bit nuts" and we agreed. This was in the 1960s when terms like "autism" and "Asperger syndrome" were unknown in Germany, at least to us and the adults around us.
After I finished my training as a music teacher in 1980, I decided to start special education training. It was only then that I learned more about autism and other related conditions.
In 2007, I moved to Norway and my first job was to work with an autistic child in kindergarten. Hamdhi was three and a half years old when he started kindergarten. He was without speech, seemed to lack an understanding of words and phrases, could not focus, and showed no interest in communication or playing with other children. He had motor deficiencies and would only eat yogurt and some liquid-style baby food.
Only a few days after I began, Hamdhi was reported to the PPT, a pedagogical and psychological help group found in every commune in Norway, and a meeting was arranged with specialists who came to observe him. About two months later, he began to receive up to seven hours of special training per day! All costs were covered by state health insurance.
His special training included ABA training, physiotherapy, other motor training, toilet training, play training, swimming, systematic logopedic training, music therapy, and social training. The social training included things such as learning how to sit together with other kids while eating and taking part in group activities. It took Hamdhi about three months to understand that there is meaning connected to sounds and words, but once he began to understand this, he became very eager to learn more.
In the beginning, he managed to learn about three to five new words per week. A few months later, he was up to five words a day! The regular logopedic training was very successful as well. The following year, he managed to pronounce almost all combinations of consonants and vowels.
Hamdhi received training in the following areas: shapes, colors, categories, storytelling, drawing, painting, and language. We taught him how to give the ”right” answers in social situations. We taught him to read facial expressions and associate facial expressions with specific emotions. The best thing I remember about him was his "never give up" attitude. Failing 100 times was followed by trying 100 times more.
Just before he celebrated his sixth birthday, Hamdhi could count up to 1000, read and write numbers, and do simple math. He was familiar with reading and writing capital letters as well as lowercase letters. He could not only write his name, but also a great number of words. He had started reading, not just by recognizing written words but also by combining letters and reading words he did not know before. In his kindergarten class, he was known as the "memory king" and had a wider vocabulary than many of the children who spoke English as a second language. All of the people involved in his training were very proud and pleased with these results.
This is the last situation I remember before I left for another job:
Hamdhi and I sat at a table facing each other and I started eating cookies. Hamdhi watched me with a smile on his face. I knew he loved these cookies and I knew he could say the sentence, "Can I have a cookie?" We had trained very hard, but not even his favorite cookies prompted him to take initiative. I hope that one day he will be able to ask for something he wants.
Outside of my work life, I have traveled a lot and many of my trips have taken me to Nepal. In 2011, I read an article about autism in a local Nepali newpaper and understood that autistic children in Nepal lead a life that is quite different from what autistic children experience in Norway. The lack of autism specialists and general knowledge and awareness in Nepal is mostly due to poverty.
By chance I came into contact with Autsim Care Nepal and I thought hard about how I might help them raise money for their cause. As a passionate mountain walker, I decided to do a charity walk for them. On April 2, 2012, the UN's World Autism Awareness Day, I will start a four-month charity walk for Autism Care Nepal, following the newly opened Great Himalaya Trail. To learn more about the charity walk, please visit the Great Himalaya Trail -Walking for a Better Future website.
The views expressed in this story are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the NLM Family Foundation.