A child’s autistic world
By Enrique de la Osa
When I arrived early at the Dora Alonso School, Julio came over, shook my hand and gave me the latest weather report. He did it with such precision that I didn’t know what to say. Julio is 24 years old and a die-hard meteorology aficionado. But instead of working as an expert predictor of the weather, he was making a living sweeping the school’s patios. Julio is also a patient at the school – he suffers from autism.
The Dora Alonso School specializes in treating children who suffer from autism spectrum disorders. The building housing the school was a military facility before the Revolution, and it was inaugurated as a school for children with special needs ten years ago by Cuba’s former President Fidel Castro. The school is surrounded by a lush green garden and there is no outside noise. It is extremely peaceful. More than 40 children, ranging from the age of four to six spend their days at the school with a group of therapists, doctors, physiotherapists and psychologists who not only work with the children but prepare parents and teachers as well.
The disorders can range from severe mental retardation with a profound inability to communicate, to relatively mild symptoms combined with some high levels of function such as those seen in people with Asperger’s. When I saw the students I found they looked physically normal, but seemed apathetic. They live in a world different from others. In Cuba we are used to children running around, laughing, crying, and doing everything with lots of noise and bravado; they wear their emotions on their sleeves. But these children were quiet and detached. They were completely unfazed by my presence and the camera, showing no curiosity.
The teachers, almost all women, were cheerful and deeply caring, and I was impressed by the enormous amount of affection the therapists showed to the children as they tried to make them feel at home. In class the children painted, listened to the sound of musical instruments, and with the help of a therapist they did movements in front of a mirror. In one classroom two boys were working at computers in front of a mirror. The mirror was positioned in a way so they could recognize themselves. They concentrated completely and worked on the computers with great ease.
The children do a lot of activities outside the school as well. I went with a small group to the aquarium. The National Aquarium of Havana each week hosts groups of children on guided tours where they learn to interact with dolphins and seals as part of their therapy. The therapists say this kind of therapy helps the patients to interact with others, despite their disabilities.
I watched the children’s reaction when the therapists submerged them in the warm water of a small pool. There were screams of joy and a lot of splashing. But it was still a long way from the small pool to the dolphin. It’s a huge challenge for therapists and parents because although there is progress, it’s a very slow process.
One day I went into one of the classrooms and a boy came up to me. He touched the camera and started to laugh and talk to me. He made funny faces as children often do when they see a camera. I asked the teacher if he was one of the students and she said yes, but that he had progressed so much that he was ready to be transferred to a regular school soon. When I left the school, I felt thankful for having had the opportunity to meet these children and to the therapists for having allowed me to photograph them. But most of all I felt immensely happy for that young boy who was ready to make that step into our world.