Julio Martínez Molina (Text & photo)
MUCH has been written about autism, for example, that many persons with this condition are visual thinkers and store words in their written form. Films have highlighted, or possibly exaggerated, their abilities.
Treatment for the condition is a challenge for specialists, demanding dedication, patience and understanding.
This is exactly what affected children, adolescents and young adults have found in the Vilma Espín Autism Center in Cienfuegos, the pride of the province’s educational system.
The Center’s director, Tania González Fonseca, stated that the school’s goal is to provide the support needed by these students to achieve an independent, useful life, and to strengthen the development of specialists who work in the field.
The staff, she said, has implemented a program based on individualized assessment using a variety of methods and an educational model consisting of pedagogical and psychological strategies to be used with autistic students in order to facilitate their social development. The center also supports families in the use of similar strategies at home.
Educational psychologist Ileana Alvarez Araújo and Idolidia Veitía Cantero, a specialist in methodology for autistic students, work in the Center, along with another psychologist, a speech therapist, five teachers and four aides, serving 18 pupils, of the 23 identified as autistic in the province.
"All of the work we do here is therapeutic; the academic process is part of an educational psychological approach to stimulate responses in children of social behavior, imitation and adaptation. They are children who are governed by routines, they respond to the same stimuli. Thus there are no surprises in the school, no schedule changes, and we follow procedures adjusted to meet their needs," Alvarez explained.
"They learn to work through imitation, but do not automatically demonstrate imitative behaviors, even for the simplest actions such as dressing themselves or moving a spoon to the mouth. Our methods, therefore, are based on constant observation and discovery of their potential," the specialist said.
INDIVIDUALIZED ATTENTION FOR EVERY CHILD
Each child is unique. Six year old Carlos Manuel González Rivero likes very much to be cuddled and hugged, but avoids physical contact in all of his other actions. He is attracted by electronics which respond - a cellular phone, a camera’s flash or the start-up of a computer.
Carlitos has learned to control his bladder and teachers are now working with him to overcome his habit of walking on tip-toes.
Laura María Rovira, eight years old, has acquired skills to work on a computer. With visual support, she can determine what action to complete and how. She has also developed functional echolalia, she repeats what she hears.
Adolescent José Alí Martínez Ribalta likes music and can recognize all the singers he has heard. Mnemonic strategies were used to help him identify colors, which he knew but described with his own words or names, mostly associated with foods, such as ‘pudding’ for white.
Thirteen-year-old Eduardo Enríquez Carballosa has a special predilection for big cats and knows all their characteristics and habits. This reflects a strength the staff can build on, Álvarez explained.
The children have attended other special schools, where good work was done, but here they progress because of the one-to-one approach, said Veitía, the methodologist.
Teachers note specific behaviors such as hand motions or other body movements which hamper curricular activities, serving no purpose really, thus the importance of one-on-one work.
Given the differentiated approach, the children have improved their socialization, communication skills, recognition of space and adaptation to the school’s schedule of classes, snack time and lunch, according to Álvarez. Even the most low-functioning move to the lunchroom and sit in their places, when the bell rings, she added.
The school has achieved positive results in its first year of operation, reflecting the humanistic character of Cuba’s public education system which includes not only appropriate attention to the children, but support for families, as well, according to speech therapist Liliana Díaz Ortega.
Three students with Asperger’s, four diagnosed with Rett Syndrome, three classic autistics and eight with generalized developmental issues have all progressed, thanks to the implementation of this costly educational program, offered free of charge.
The Vilma Espín Center additionally offers students support beyond the walls of the school, in their own homes as needed to learn life skills, and even in the workplace, such as is the case with one student now functioning in a ceramics workshop.