Autism does not equate uneducable. Annalies van Rijswijk can attest that any child can learn, regardless of their particular need; from developmental delays, social interaction problems to Autism Spectrum Disorder. The special needs adapted programme “recognises the uniqueness of each child and is geared to addressing the needs of each”. In the end, SNAP aims to enable children to reach their potential.

Her love of teaching bloomed at an early age. Now, many years later, Annalies has more than 30 years’ experience in teaching children with autism and comorbid problems. Over two decades of her teaching days were spent building a private practice which grew into SNAP, the special needs adapted programme.

SNAP is a non-profit organisation that offers training and therapy for children with autism or who are on the Autism spectrum. She has helped families from over 44 countries and established three branches, two located in South Africa: Cape Town, Bloemfontein; and one in Ireland.

“In 1985, 4 in 10 000 children were diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

Since then, Autism Spectrum Disorder increased to 1 in 59.  Many factors contribute to the drastic rise. These include environmental factors, increased susceptibility of biological triggers and improved diagnosis. To address the autism stigma, Annalies decided to train parents and tutors instead, which is how SNAP came into being.

“Our first student was a four-year-old child who was diagnosed as uneducable. After six months she made up her three and a half years of delay and today she has a BA degree and a license. She went to Beijing on a bursary because of her excellent Mandarin. Today, she’s continuing her LLB studies.

That is why I fight for anyone with a delay. Don’t say they can’t. Work with them instead. Most autistic children have an exceptional memory, not all will go to university but everyone could develop and be functional, even if it is at a low function.

At SNAP, we teach self-help skills, life skills, academics, and sensory awareness (i.e. to alleviate hyperosmia, auditory or tactile sensitivity). After implementing different tactics, reactive individuals can be desensitised, and function in society – parents need to know that this is possible.”

Fear of the unknown keeps society at bay and makes parents hold on to their autistic children even tighter.

“Parents have been told that their child is developmentally disabled and will get nowhere. Parents are afraid, and the impact is enormous. Unfortunately, these families are often isolated. Some may keep their children at home due to their unruly behaviour or pity, and friends don’t visit. Parents don’t have support nor are they taught how to help their children. They don’t know that their child can get somewhere in life. Even if it is washing dishes, they can do something.

Autistic individuals are always good at something, whether they are high or low functioning. If they are disciplined and willing to listen, they can learn. The younger the better. Once a child is two or three or starts talking, they are ready for education.

For schooling to be successful, it’s vital to understand how autistic individuals learn and function. They are reliant on patterns that they build into their lives. As concrete thinkers, they can become difficult when there is a disruption in their routine or if they don’t understand a particular word or why something is happening.

Preparation is an essential step. You need to prepare these children for new things, like a shopping expedition. Buy only two things and go back later or take a video of the trip before you take your child with you. Those who have been well prepared, and whose parents continually pray for them, will get somewhere in life.

However, don’t do everything for an autistic child. We have too many children that are sitting at home, with parents doing everything for them. You need to try something 20 000 times before you can say a child can’t do something. A severe handicap can be turned around to mild or no handicap.

Apart from mentally preparing children, parents and educators must ensure that these children eat healthily. Food has a profound impact on their behaviour. It’s important to follow a gluten- and casein-free diet because preservatives, colourants and sugar make children wild. A nutritious meal can enable a child’s brain to open up and they are more cooperative.”

South Africa, and the greater society, face many challenges before we can build a harmonious community. Those dealing with autism have to undergo even more hardships, Annalies explains.

We don’t have enough schools or support for parents with autistic children. Another problem is the ignorance of autism. Rural and far off places have children on the autism spectrum who don’t get help. Many children are diagnosed as uneducable and parents are advised to forget about treatment. These children are put into a care home and forgot.

These are the lost children. We need to raise awareness, an easily-accessible TV programme that is accessible to parents that shows them how to treat and deal with autism. We should show high functioning autistic children, specifically to answer pressing questions: Can they live independently? Can they shop? Can they work?

We help and train as far as possible and as wide as possible, but we are limited to our people resource. I can only help those who come to me. At this stage, parents spread the word, and it’s the only form of awareness.

Teachers need to understand the difference between Asperger’s and autism. We train our teachers and tutors as we tailor our approach to each child’s needs, from speech to muscle tone and everything in between to help the child develop to their full potential.

Ideally, all schools must have a classroom dedicated to autistic learners. Support in their immediate environment is vital. Teachers also need to understand autism; additional training will help. As a teacher, you need to be passionate and persistent in your efforts.

Children are difficult, but you have to work through it, patiently. Perseverance is key. Autistic children often act in one of two ways: I can’t do it because it’s too difficult or I won’t do it because I know it. Some children learn something on their first try, then they get bored if they have to practice it repeatedly.

You need to help these children to get into life and be functional and go with what they’re interested in because then they will give their best. Autistic children browse the internet. If they tell you about something they’ve researched, they like it. When they spend time on something, of their own accord, it’s a clear sign that that is where their interest lies. Use their interest to get them to learn.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid of them. If training is sufficient children can function normally, look at Einstein. The world must be trained in autism. Trained doctors, nurses and police will know how to interact with someone on the autism spectrum correctly, and not in a harmful manner.”

There is hope. Autistic children can thrive, so can their families, if we work together and try to understand that each life is special.

“I hope to help children develop and reach a place in life. The early intervention may seem costly but, if not done, upkeep later in life may cost three times as much in the end.

If there is an autistic person in your family, reach out and try to help. Babysit and get to know the child while giving the parents a break. Don’t let these parents shy away from family gatherings because the child is too disruptive. They have to be incorporated into the family to get the help they need. Be patient at gatherings.

We need to pray. God is almighty and things can happen if people stand together. Firstly, go to church. When people don’t go to church, they feel more isolated than they would in a church community. The reason lies in productivity, purpose and praise. There is always something to do in church, whether it’s making tea on a Sunday or wash dishes. People will start talking to you. In a church, you’ll find people who will support you.”

Find out more about SNAP, or get in touch via their website here: http://snap.org.za/.