Small, important steps are taken to improve Colombia’s understanding of autism

By Jess Rapp January 24, 2018

In comparison with the western world, Colombia has fallen behind in providing equal opportunities and support for children with autism. Misconceptions, and simply plain ignorance, has left many autistic children without proper education and care.

According to El Spectador, the  Ministry of Health has reported that, between 2009 and 2011, 502 girls and 127 boys with learning disabilities, such as Down syndrome, were permanently sterilised, the El Espectador reported. Not only is this seen as a breach of their human rights, but highlights the general unawareness towards these disorders and lack of research into them.

Government inaction has also led to huge parts of the country having no indication on how they should best respond to the needs of people with disorders like autism and Aspberger’s, particularly among children. Families have had an ongoing struggle with communities, workplaces and schools to allow their children to receive the same opportunities as everyone else.

Last year, a number of students diagnosed with autism were denied enrollment into various public and private schools in Cali. According to El Tiempo, 180 families all faced similar predicaments, despite their child passing all necessary regulations and entrance exams.

Recently however, Colombia has been taking baby steps to change general conceptions about autism through the growth of organisations and social media.

Last month, Frederico García Villegas, an 8 year old boy from Cali, took to YouTube to explain his condition as a person with Asperger’s Syndrome. With the help from his mother, Andrea Villegas, the video has over 100,000 views after being shared across social media platforms around the world. It has helped to raise awareness and inform others, particularly in Colombia, about what Asperger’s syndrome, and other neurological disorders on the spectrum of autism really are.

“I’m not crazy, not freaky, not weird, only my way of perceiving things and processing information is different,” says Federico. “Asperger syndrome is not a disease so you do not have to look for a cure, it’s part of me and will continue to be my whole life.”

Local organisations such as the Colombian Autism League (LICA) are also putting an end to the myths surrounding autism that have, until now, contributed to discrimination and unmindful actions.

LICA organises monthly workshops deigned to support and strengthen families living with autism. These programs often team up with musical organisations which have a favourable impact on the quality of life of autistic children, and seek to identify the main strengths and priority needs of each family. By working with local communities LICA aims to put an end to the segregation and stigma that people with autism and their families face. Furthermore, through ongoing coordination with the UN and Departmental and District Disability Committees (CDD), LICA is also striving to change national policy towards autism and improve government involvement.

However, Colombia will need to maintain these fresh efforts if it wants to completely change the narrative around people with disabilities and help them achieve skills that can lead to independence and meaningful work.

Coding Autism, a startup founded last year, is an example of an organisation empowering autistic young adults through professional and social skills training. By focusing on STEM-related studies, Coding Autism provides a range of services centred around coding, web development and software and engineering skills to prepare autistic adults for tech jobs.

Colombia will need to look towards these organisations as examples to begin its own initiatives to give autistic children not only the right education and equal opportunities, but a chance to progress into vocational jobs and integrate more meaningfully into society.