Over 9.6 million learners attending pre-primary to tertiary education in Ghana have been affected by the unprecedented closure of schools due to COVID-19 (UNESCO, 2020).
Persons on the autism spectrum (a neurodevelopmental disorder with associated challenges of social communication, social interaction and rigidity or restrictive repetitive behaviour) have likewise been affected.
Now, educational settings and other agencies are speedily developing resources and using technology to provide a semblance of continuity for some learners during lockdown, educational disruption and home schooling.
Obviously, the pedagogy and practice of teachers have been affected by COVID-19. A family’s financial means has dictated school choice, which inadvertently influences support received, especially regarding digitalisation and online learning.
Some autistic children have access to remote teaching and online resources through assistive technology or low-tech facilities (e.g. materials in hard copy). Computers, including smartphones, tablets, notebooks, etc. are also useful for multi-modal learning. The more digitally literate, innovative and savvy the teaching staff, the higher the quality of learning experiences provided.
This is regardless of many instances where a blackboard and chalk are the only available teaching accessories. Also remember, learning must be individualised and tailored to each child’s developmental capabilities.
Introducing digital technology in early childhood can start children in digital literacy, potentially equipping them with the skills to participate meaningfully in future. There are pros and cons. Typical constraints include unavailable connectivity or tools for online learning (e.g. smartphones, computers), high internet data costs and unreliable power supply.
Meanwhile, urban/sub-urban families may see pronounced issues such as insomnia and hyperactivity when their autistic children are exposed to too much technology.
However, a pragmatic approach can produce positive long-term outcomes for autistic children in both rural and urban settings.
Autistic teenagers transitioning into adulthood need their digital skills regularly upgraded. A Technovagh.com recent posting suggested making digitisation of public services in Ghana (health, government and financial services) the norm, considering COVID-19.
Without digital literacy, children or young adults on the autism spectrum continue to face exclusion from everyday life experiences. Implementation of the government’s own policy documents, such as the Disability Inclusion, in its Emergency Response to COVID-19 becomes an illusion.
Currently, e-Learning or teaching is being rolled out, with the Ministry of Education (MoE) promoting icampusgh.com, an online study platform for Senior High School (SHS) students.
Other learning channels are by media organisations in the country, as well as some telecommunications companies that are giving access to online educational materials.
For autistic children, transitioning from face-to-face learning to online or digital learning may take a while. A sudden change in their routine is often challenging. Meanwhile, internet cafes are shut, and fewer households have access to working digital tools, creating more difficulty for autistic people to access educational resources.
Furthermore, actual numbers of smartphone users are low compared to those using the simpler voice and SMS-only phones. For children on the autism spectrum, should learning cease because they lack tools to facilitate learning?
Let’s remember that some autistic children have co-occurring conditions such as visual impairment and dyslexia. For the visually challenged, screen reader programmes and other apps like Text-to-speech/TalkBack can facilitate easier access to educational content. Reasonable adjustments must be made for learners, including those living in remote communities.
Meanwhile, teachers should remember not to set unrealistic targets for parents who are homeschooling children.
Social media, Short Message Service (SMS), national or private radio and television broadcasts, and videoconferencing must be further developed and adapted to enable the sharing of appropriate pedagogy and best practice.
Let us collaborate with professionals in our communities to create innovative culturally appropriate content for people on the autism spectrum. Let’s think, what happens with patterns of learning when schools reopen post COVID-19? What is the exit plan?
These times of uncertainties in relation to the reopening of schools should be used by all in critical thinking, realigning and evaluating what education is. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 aims to ensure “inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.
We call on telecommunications companies to participate by donating smartphones and providing free monthly data to support needful families of children on the autism spectrum.
We need your help now!
The writers are a Disability Advocate & Core Team Member and a Researcher and Organiser at AutismDTgh
Source: Daily Graphic
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