Last fall, Jackie Murphy (second row, fourth from left in the above photo), a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) at Northeast Arc’s The Learning Center and Building Blocks, had the opportunity to travel to Rwanda to share her experience and expertise with educators and clinicians in Kigali. This is her account of that trip.
In October, I traveled to Rwanda with the Global Autism Project as part of their Skillscorp team. The Global Autism Project organization sends volunteer groups of autism professionals and autistic self-advocates to global partner sites. Once in-country, the volunteers work together with the partners on staff training and professional development.
My team was one of seven that traveled in October. Teams went to Rwanda, Tanzania, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Ecuador, and India. My team and I were assigned to the Silver Bells school in Kigali, Rwanda. Silver Bells was founded in 2018 by Evas Kyomugisha. The school has 75 students in its autism and disabilities program and over 300 students in its neurotypical program. The school has Speech Language Pathologists and Occupational Therapists to work with the children and they have started to introduce Applied Behavior Analysis to the classrooms. My team and I collaborated with the Silver Bells staff for two weeks. We first observed, then provided training to build and teach new skills and then gave feedback based on the trainings.
We provided an initial staff training on assessing student motivation and delivering reinforcement to increase adaptive skills and decrease challenging behaviors with the students. Together with one of my teammates, I conducted a training on using play to promote language development and then assisted the teachers on combining the younger classrooms in a few playgroups throughout the weeks I was there.
At first, I was unsure if our methods were translating across culture and through the language barrier, but on one of the last days I walked through a classroom and I could hear a teacher singing a song I modeled for them in one of the playgroups earlier in the week. She then paused so the child could fill in the blanks and use their emerging words to request more. It was powerful observing the teachers incorporate new skills and methods and help the staff to develop an effective special needs program.
My team’s final training at the school was a collaboration with the staff and parents were invited to attend. Together with the teachers, we shared general strategies on how to deal with some common challenging behaviors at home and how to promote social connections and language development through play. At the end of the training, we opened it up to parent questions and it was powerful to connect with the parents.
We heard from a few parents that moved specifically to Rwanda for Silver Bells from countries like Nigeria for access to education and therapy for their children. One 16-year-old boy moved from Burundi to Rwanda with his family in 2021 so he could attend school for the first time in his life.
Silver Bells is one of the only schools for children with autism or disabilities, not only in Rwanda, but also in East Africa. Most children with disabilities or autism in Africa do not go to school and many are ostracized from their community. Many people do not understand autism and other developmental disabilities. They do not understand that with special education and therapy, many of these children can lead full and rich lives. Schools like Silver Bells are incredibly important in educating not only the children, but the larger community. Silver Bells’ long-term goal is to bring special education services to the remote villages throughout Rwanda and Evas, the school director, wants to help African families bring their children with autism out of hiding and into the world.
At The Learning Center and Building Blocks we are proud to offer innovative and evidence-based programs that help children thrive alongside their families. It meant so much to me to be able to share that knowledge with the educators and clinicians and Rwanda who are working so hard to change lives and combat stigma.
I am grateful I was able to take part in this volunteer program through support of my friends, family and co-workers at Building Blocks and The Learning Center and with generous financial support from Rock the Spectrum and the Northeast Arc Autism Support Center.