What I need is to have him accepted

Read the story of Dancho and his mother, told within the framework of the Education for Every Child Campaign

Juliana Koleva
Данчо играе като част от обучеието си
UNICEF Bulgaria/2020/Yotova
07 July 2020

Specialists and special educators working with children with disabilities have clearly identified the need for additional online support to children, as well as to teachers and parents. This becomes very clear in Dancho’s (Yordan/Dani) story which we are telling within the framework of our  Education for Every Child campaign. In response to this need, UNICEF, in partnership with the Ministry of Education and the Regional Inclusive Education Support Centre in the City of Sofia, will develop an online interactive platform to make education more accessible to children with disabilities, while their teachers and families, in close cooperation with the relevant specialists, will be able to obtain knowledge and resources to be even more helpful to children. 

“We might work hard and achieve progress at the rehabilitation centre or at home, we might make huge efforts but this development and way of communication would become beneficial only if the children are accepted and rolled out everywhere, at the kindergarten, at school, and in the community”. This opinion is shared by Yordan’s mother Valentina Yordanova and his psychologist Ani Manoleva, who have spared no effort to improve the communication with the five-years-old boy with an autism spectrum disorder for the last 18 months.

Dancho’s mother insists on a global change of the negative general public attitudes. What she wants is to have him accepted, not to be criticized or given unsolicited advice in shops or in the street, or to be ousted from the children’s playground by other mothers, or to be compelled to reduce the number of places they visit to only a few where she knows that her son will be accepted and will not face negative looks, comments or criticism. However, the psychologist working with the child believes that this could be achieved only if small steps are made first, starting from the kindergarten. It should be a place where children who are ‘different’ stay together with the rest; where children meet, communicate, and understand each other. They should also teach their parents that these children are not ‘mad’, as it is often said according to Dancho’s mother. It is just the approach to the communication with them that should change. Thus, they will be included and understood.

Данчо и неговата майка посещават терапия за деца със специални потребости
UNICEF Bulgaria/2020/Yotova

"“What I basically need is to have him accepted. Everywhere. Not only at the kindergarten or at school… And people should know a bit more about autism."

You cannot imagine how hard it is when we go out and people look at him with disgust; when they rebuke us for his tantrum or reaction that is somewhat different from the generally accepted one. Therefore, we go out very rarely now”, says Valentina. She has little time for anything else but Dancho and this is only when she leaves the boy at the rehabilitation centre where he stays for an hour on working days. At all other times, the mother is busy with her son and she cannot leave him even for an hour.

Данчо и неговата майка посещават терапия за деца със специални потребости
UNICEF Bulgaria/2020/Yotova

With the support of the psychologists at the rehabilitation centre, her efforts to work with Dancho and to develop her child, notwithstanding the diagnosis, yield encouraging results. Yet, Valentina says she is terrified by the future… when she will have to let Yordan attend the compulsory pre-school education programme. “I am really scared; I am afraid of letting him go to the kindergarten. I fear that they would mock him, reject him, fail to accept him. That would be a huge step backward for him”, the mother says.

Still, the psychologist Ani Manoleva sees the intrinsic relationship between general acceptance and the enrolling at the kindergarten.

“The first acceptance does not come at the global level; it comes at the place where people meet first and that is the kindergarten. But there is still a glaring need for skills to ensure the inclusion of children like Dancho in the groups. Instead of being put in separate rooms for work with special educators, they should be in the mainstream group, together with their peers. They need their milieu and it does not consist of four specialists and two speech therapists. They need their natural environment which should be adapted to them”, she says.

The psychologist points out that the boy has progressed in terms of skills, communication and behaviour for the last 18 months. “We might be successful in applying some communication method at the centre, like a picture book which parents use also at home. But then the time comes for the child to go to other places – another centre, a kindergarten, and even shops. Here we need the cooperation of other colleagues and the mainstream teachers. But they often lack the necessary skills, they are not trained. They need support and training that is specifically adapted to the needs of every child and his or her interests and deficits rather than a one-fits-all format”, the psychologist adds.

So far Valentina, with the help of Ani Manoleva and the specialists at the Centre for Social Rehabilitation and Integration focused on autism spectrum disorders in the capital city, has set the beginning and Yordan is already able to consciously pronounce words and use them with their proper meaning. He communicates. As to the items for which he has no words yet, there is a picture dictionary and he points to a picture when he needs something but cannot pronounce the word. This is how he communicates with the specialists and at home.

IMPACT - система за комуникация на деца с разстройство от оутистичния спектър
UNICEF Bulgaria/2020/Yotova

Initially, Dancho’s mother went to the rehabilitation centre as an observer and escort. That was also a way to make the boy relax at the new place. Later, both were involved in a special programme to roll out what he had learned from the centre to his home and to make it useful in real life. And also, to show the specialists how the child coped with his daily life and make them understand what else they could change and how they could help, how he behaved at home.

That was achieved through daily video recordings which Valentina made in different situations assigned by the experts. Then they discussed the issues and challenges and gave advice to the mother on how she should and could behave to improve things and move forward.

Данчо и неговата майка посещават терапия за деца със специални потребости
UNICEF Bulgaria/2020/Yotova

“Thus, in the course of the year for which the programme is designed, we teach parents and they learn how to assist and develop their children best and how to be most helpful to them. That was what we did during the three months of the lockdown. We had to discontinue the direct work with Dancho at the centre, but we did not discontinue our contacts with the parent and, for that matter, with the child”, says Ani Manoleva.

“We had weekly online meetings and reinforced the achievements. We even managed to move forward. In that way, the parent’s involvement helped us keep up and we managed to help him adapt to the new situation, to his new daily life and to the change which would be difficult to cope with anyway”, says the psychologist.

Now what he has learned should be taken up and developed by more people at the kindergarten and then at school. For this purpose, close collaboration is needed. Piecemeal work should give way to a coordinated approach to the child so that to achieve meaningful results. 

Данчо играе в центъра за социална интеграция и рехабилитация
UNICEF Bulgaria/2020/Yotova

“And if children get used to ‘different’ children next to them, they will take this home and even teach their parents to demonstrate more tolerance, acceptance and positive attitude”, adds the psychologist.

“If there are online resources like a platform with explanations, video materials and files to show what a child would do in such an environment, how to involve the child more successfully, what to do with him or her throughout the day, then teachers will be able to use these materials and make their work easier, while at the same time they will be able to help the child”, says Ani Manoleva.

She explains that teachers could use such platforms to upgrade their qualifications, to adapt the programme to the individual child, to learn how to individualize activities and how to visualise the environment, the classroom, etc.

“If all teachers at all kindergartens use the same resources in their work, for instance these pictures and booklets, the adaptation of children like Dani will be much better and easier. If each teacher can work with such a child, if teachers are trained, it will be much more useful instead of just waiting for the specialists who come once a week”, says Yordan’s mother.

Perhaps this is the way to see the change in the community, which Valentina dreams of. Thus, she would no longer need to change herself. “I still cannot get used to ignoring attitudes, although I have been trying hard. I decide that if they rebuke me, I will fight back, I will tell them that they have no right to interfere and use such language… but then I bow my head, take my child and leave”.

The change must start and ensure that Valentina will stop leaving with her head bowed. Teachers should also be supported and made much better prepared and knowledgeable on how to adapt the environment and accommodate children with special needs. Teaching them together with their peers.