Erick is the inspiration behind Connects Autism Tanzania. While he was Mama Grace’s initial reason for learning about autism, Mama Grace has made her personal campaign a broader mission to help all who struggle with this and other intellectual abilities in Tanzania.
Autism Connects Tanzania (ACT) was created in 2010 to build a basis of support and advocacy for caretakers of children and youth with autism in the Kilimanjaro region. Grace Lyimo teamed up with Kerri Elliott, a special needs teacher from the U.S. and Kerri’s colleague, Jillian Swinford, to organize ACT’s initial activities – a series of workshops and seminars for all segments of the area’s population who either experienced or served those with intellectual disabilities.
Grace then banded with other parents and local government leaders to fundraise for construction of a special needs unit that would be attached to Patandi Teaching College. She went on to help establish a special needs unit in a government primary school that could service her son and other children with similar disabilities, while pushing for a trained special needs teacher. Mama Grace’s struggle became even more problematic, however, as Eric matured. By 19 years old, Erick and his peers were still enrolled in the primary school. These youth had no skills to become independent and were not being challenged academically. As a result, behavioral issues only worsened. Still lacking communication skills, they could not express themselves.
As Erick struggled with increasing behavioral and social difficulties without a way to communicate, Mama Grace visited various schools and health programs with him looking for services. Few to none existed.
Our Background Story
From 2012 to 2015, ACT hosted over 15 workshops and seminars that brought together and educated families, teachers, development organizations, government officials, social service providers and even law enforcement officers. These events functioned as a vital way to establish a network of support, previously non-existent, for the autistic this region.
At the same time, ACT pursued other paths to address the conditions for those with autism and co-occurring conditions. One was to assist fledgling community organizations. ACT was an early supporter of the Gabriella Children’s Rehabilitation Centre, Moshi, providing funds for critical staffing that allowed the Centre to deliver quality care and instruction. ACT also hosted many of its workshops and seminars there, introducing others to the Centre’s innovative services. And in an unprecedented move, ACT facilitated the visit of a U.S. professional to undertake clinical diagnosis at the Centre.
In 2014 ACT reached out to the Pambazuka Special Needs Center in village of Mto wa Mbu, in the Manyara Region of Tanzania. A workshop and follow-up meetings sought to help the Center organize better community support.
Beyond its seminars, ACT made available ongoing educational support by assembling and distributing a wide array of informative materials for teachers, organizations and families. Further, a website about intellectual disabilities in both Swahili and English began to serve as a starting point for Tanzanians to better understand this condition.
In 2015-16, ACT accomplished two major goals: In April it led community-supported marches in multiple districts to mark World Autism Awareness Day in Northern Tanzania; and in July it became a fully-registered Tanzanian NGO under a new name: Connects Autism Tanzania. Today autism has a Swahili word in Tanzania - usonji. The work begun by CA Tanzania in 2010 has taken root. We now can build on this foundation so that the autistic and those with co-occurring conditions gain equal rights as Tanzanian citizens.
In 2017, CA Tanzania accomplished four major goals: CAT Director, GraceAnna Lyimo had an interview with The Guardian newspaper addressing the importance of having special curriculum for the autistic children, CA Tanzania hosted an Ascent for Autism fundraiser where youth with autism managed to walk up to the first base camp on Mount Kilimanjaro, CAT celebrated the Day of African Child, and held several educational seminars throughout the year.
2018 brought more successes for Connects Autism Tanzania. In March of 2018, CA Tanzania participated in a 3-day seminar on special education in Arusha with 120 participants. With lessons learned at this seminar, CA Tanzania facilitated several of its own trainings throughout the year. Most notably, CAT worked closely with second year teachers and students studying special education at PATANDI Teachers Training College, as well as third year student’s teachers from SEKOMU University to learn the use of I.EP (Individual Education Plans) for students and share with other people in their respective region.
Each year, CA Tanzania continues to raise awareness about individuals with intellectual disabilities and provide caregivers and educators with invaluable skills for working with this population.