Jibril seemed to be a typically developing baby until he was about 18 months old. “He was talking at nine months, using real words and making sentences,” his mother, Faduma recalls. “Then, one day, he stopped speaking and would just clap instead. Then he stopped clapping and was silent.”
Faduma and her husband thought perhaps he was experiencing hearing loss and, at 16 months, Jibril had surgery to have his adenoid glands removed. While his hearing seemed to improve, however, other behaviors began to worsen. “He stopped making eye contact and stopped engaging.”
Jibril was soon diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). “At that point, I saw two ways I could approach this and deal with my fear and pain. I could either give in to the anger and self-pity, or I could say, ‘This is how he is, and I’m going to celebrate him.’”
That approach is uncommon in her community. “Autism in the Somali community is misunderstood and feared,” Faduma explains. “Some see it as an affliction or curse brought upon Somalis. Shame and stigma are the biggest things we’re battling.” She is working to start a support group to help educate other Somali parents about ASD – what it is, what it isn’t, and what help is available.
Faduma wants her son to learn basic skills – “how to wait his turn, how to choose, how to interact with others, how to focus on something when he needs to” – and she says Jibril’s therapists and teachers at Children’s Therapy Center are helping her and her family achieve that goal. “Our mission for both our son and our daughter is a life of opportunities and choices,” Faduma says. “I don’t want Jibril to be limited or hindered by autism. Yes, Jibril has autism – but I don’t consider him ‘autistic.’ I don’t consider him ‘special needs.’ He has individual needs, just like I do, just like you do. He doesn’t have a disability, he has another ability. He does things differently, his own way. I just call it ‘Jibril’s way.’”
“One of the luckiest things for us has been finding Children’s Therapy Center,” she adds. “The therapists are caring and helpful in an available, open way. They’re never condescending. They never say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do for your child, here’s how we’ll fix him.’ He doesn’t need fixing and they know that.”
She reflects on what life with her son has done for her. “He’s made me a 100% attentive mom, a better mom,” she says. Tears spring to her eyes. “I respect him. He’s made me a better human being and a stronger woman.”