For years, silence. And then at 16 he said, 'love you, mama'
Originally published at: https://edition.cnn.com/2015/04/15/africa/zemi-yenus-autism-ethiopia/index.html
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (CNN) "I didn't know what to do. I didn't know how to help my child." These are the words no parent ever wants to say.
And yet for Zemi Yenus, this was her reality.
After years of carving out a successful career as a beautician in Los Angeles, the Ethiopian cosmetologist and mother of two had returned to her hometown of Addis Ababa. The year was 1996. Eager to dispense her learned knowledge back into the community, she went on to establish Niana School of Beauty, the country's first licensed beauty school. Business was booming and with 6,000 students the school was proving a hit with aspiring beauticians.
But life at home was hard. Yenus' second child Jojo was struggling at school. Four years older than his brother Bilal, he wasn't developing in the same way.
He'd already been excluded from several educational facilities and private education was costing a fortune. His behavior was being singled out as the primary root of his learning problems and Yenus decided to have him tested in the UK. Doctors soon returned their diagnosis -- autism.
"I never knew he had autism," recalls Yenus. "In the U.S. I wasn't told he had autism, I was only told he was a late talker -- being a boy, they usually start talking late, so that's what I understood."
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that affects individuals through "social, communication and behavioral challenges." Yenus had a decision to make: return to the U.S. where there were established schools for children on the autism spectrum or do something about it in Ethiopia. She chose the latter.
The working mum-of-two began by desperately trying to connect with her son. She started researching the medical condition and developed a teaching method to help Jojo communicate with her. Over the next 12 months, her "Abugida Fonetiks" technique -- which is based on the Ethiopian alphabet and sounds -- began to have a powerful impact on Jojo. Similar to Amharic, the method combines sounds and visualization to help a child learn to read, write and speak. "First of all, we show them pictures, how to utter the words to show them where the words come from." Learn more about the technique here
'Love you, mama'
Jojo became his mother's first pupil, and in 2002 the successful beautician decided to take things further by founding the Joy Center -- a specialist school in Addis Ababa catering to children with autism. Yenus began teaching Jojo how to speak when he was eight years old. By the time he was nine, he was able to able to communicate using her technique. "The first time I heard his voice, I cried. And then he only said 'mama,'" she brightly reflects. "And the time he told me he loves me, oh... I can't... you know, it's... I have no words. He goes like this: 'love you, mama' and it feels so wonderful. "This is at a late age. He was about 16 years old when he told me that. Can you imagine for a 16-year-old boy telling you he loves you and you make a big deal out of it? I'm so happy. I'm so thrilled to hear his voice. This was my dream."
Her success in teaching Jojo spurred the motivated mother to alter autism perception in her homeland -- the condition was once considered a taboo subject in the country. Children faced a lack of understanding from parents and teachers, some were even misdiagnosed as suffering from possession or witchcraft.
Today there is a much greater understanding and the Ethiopian government now recognizes the rights of persons with disabilities, including autism.
Yenus's school, which caters to 80 children, offers an array of learning options that can provide a strong foundation of learning for a kid on the autism spectrum. There are music classes that aid with social interaction as well as occupational therapy rooms to teach teens how to develop fine motor skills to help prepare them for their futures.
As well as establishing the Joy Center, Yenus has also become a vocal champion for autism in Ethiopia, hosting a daily radio show to reach a wider audience in the country.
"If people list to my radio show, they will listen about women's wellbeing, children's wellbeing, about environment protection," she explains.
"I want to reach as many people as I can... I want to see a better Ethiopia, as we can see a better Ethiopia, a better Africa, only if we work together. Only if we are concerned about one another."