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/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 has 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.
The Ghana Chamber of Telecommunications is collaborating with the Bank of Ghana to promote digital payments and some banks promote the use of online and mobile applications. Without digital literacy, children/young adults on the autism spectrum continue to face exclusion from everyday life experiences. Implementation of the Government of Ghana’s own policy documents such as the Disability Inclusion in Government’s Emergency Response to Covid-19 become illusions.
Currently, eLearning/teaching is being rolled out. The Ministry of Education is promoting icampusgh.com (an online study platform for Senior High School students). Ghana Broadcasting Corporation and Joy Learning channel are two of available broadcasters providing content for learners.
Companies such as Vodafone are giving access to online educational material (e.g. free access to Udemy), and websites like http://avenuegh.com and https://mingycomputersgh post useful information about education in Ghana.
For many autistic children, transition from face-to-face learning to online/digital learning may take a while. Sudden change to their routine is often challenging. Meanwhile, internet cafes are shut, and fewer households have access to working digital tools, creating even 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 “Yam” 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 like visual impairment and dyslexia. For the visually challenged, screen reader programs like Job Access with Speech (JAWS), apps like Text-to-speech/TalkBack (for android phones) or Voiceover (for iPhones) 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 home schooling children.
Social media (e.g. YouTube), Short Message Service (SMS), national/private radio and television broadcasts, video conferencing (e.g. Microsoft Teams/Zoom) must be further developed and adapted to enable sharing 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 uncertainty regarding school reopening dates, may be best served by involving all in critical thinking, realigning and evaluating what education is.
For example, educators engaging with professional learning communities to learn new skills about managing technological resources and processes; Hardware and software developers collaborating with autism professionals to produce culturally appropriate content; in other words, an involvement of all stakeholders across the board.
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG4) 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!