‘Parents must accept that one child is different from another’
Osezusi Bolodeoku, a certified Special Educational Needs expert and Advanced Certified Autism Specialist is the founder/CEO of FOS Creative Arts Studio, an inclusive creative center that helps to nurture creativity, social skills, and emotional intelligence, and other practical skills that children need to succeed.
The facility is also a Special Education Needs Coordinator (SENCO) centre, providing support for children and families with special education needs including Autism, ADHD, Dyspraxia and other neurodiverse needs.
After obtaining a degree in International Relations, she spent her first five post-graduate years working in the financial sector as an electronic banking expert before pursuing a career in Education.
With a PGD in Education and Master’s in Education (M.Ed) from the University of Nottingham, she began her foray into the world of children’s special education needs after witnessing the culture of silence that proves detrimental to such children.
As the brains behind FOS, she continues to break the societal stigma associated with these children, proving that when given the right support, all children, with or without special needs, can thrive and grow together in the world.
In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she revealed how struggles with her son led her into the world of special needs. She also spoke on leaving a lucrative banking career to take up teaching; the importance of breaking the stigma surrounding kids with special needs and the changes she wants to see for children with special needs in Nigeria amongst other issues.
Take us briefly through your career journey.
During my NYSC, I served at an advertising company and after this, I worked in the customer service department at Reddington hospital. I worked there for a few months, before landing a bank job, where I worked as an electronic banker for a few years.
I got married shortly after and I knew I didn’t want to be a banker for the rest of my life, as I had always had a passion for education. So, I got employed at a school called Standard-Bearers, where I first came in contact with children with learning disabilities and neurodevelopmental disorders. That was how my journey started as an educator and now, as a special needs expert.
My twins also contributed to my journey of becoming an expert as a special educationist. They came early and my son was not reaching expected developmental milestones, so I started intervention with him. It was in the process that I discovered that our society is not so good in giving help to children with neurodivergent traits. That was how I went back to school to arrive at my current position.
Was it easy leaving a thriving career at the bank to take up teaching?
I will say thriving is relative. The pay was good but to some people, fulfillment and purpose matters more and I’m one of those people driven by purpose. Happiness matters to me. When I left banking, I thought about what comes effortlessly to me. At the time, I was a Sunday school teacher and worked with young children in my church so I knew this was something I’d love to do and this was what informed my decision.
What does being a special education needs expert and autism specialist to entail?
It simply means that you champion the right narrative for special educational needs. It means that you are an advocate. It means that you are a leader amongst your peers and you practically work with these children, helping them to attain progress.
As a special education expert, I will liken myself to a special needs doctor, who can work with children with different disabilities. However, as a specialist in autism, I use the principles of behavior to systematically improve the social behaviour of children on the spectrum.
In venturing into education, why did you decide to focus on SEN?
I believe my journey is divine and I’ve been preparing for now. Like I said earlier, I worked in an inclusive school and worked with children with diagnoses of different disorders.
The owner of the school would always tell me that all children are gifted. With my son who was yet to achieve some developmental milestones, I took action to support him in making significant progress. While taking action, I saw the problem we have as a people. Few specialists knew what the problem was, especially for a child who looks physically healthy.
With my education and knowledge, I knew something was not right. That was when I started empowering myself by getting information, going for courses, and learning and that was how my focus started. Also, I knew that a lot of parents who have children with additional needs require support, which is how, my focus on special education started.
You say there’s a heavy culture of silence surrounding special needs children in Nigeria, does that hold true even today?
A major problem we have in Nigeria is the culture of silence and this can be traced to the fear of stigmatization. There is the danger of delay for parents who remain silent. The more they stay silent, the more the child suffers and the window for early interventions begins to shut. The window is about 3-5 years. Children from 0-5 years are more receptive to intervention than children who are above five years of age. The culture of silence has a lot of negative effects on our society.
As a people and society, what are some ways we can reduce stigma surrounding kids with special needs?
Awareness and acceptance. Although, sadly, we are still in the place of awareness. However, I’m glad about the progress we have made.
The prevalence rate of autism in 2021 was 1 in 44, in 2012 it was 1 in 88. There is a high difference. If we are more aware, we can get to the point of acceptance.
Parents must accept that one child is different from another. Having a child who is autistic does not make them useless. So, if society gets to a place of acceptance after awareness, parents will have less fear of speaking out.
You also founded FOS creative arts studio, how are you using this to touch and impact the lives of your wards?
I started the studio with my son when he wasn’t meeting up with his development milestones. I got a music teacher, a choreographer, and a chess master.
As time went on, we invited friends to come over and now, we have a creative studio. We do dance, music, chess, and gymnastics. Because children with neurodivergent traits are usually creative, these activities have been able to help us have an inclusive environment.
It’s an inclusive environment where you find children with neurodiverse abilities doing different things; an environment where there is acceptance and empathy. I would say, the studio has helped in bridging that gap of exclusion. It’s very inclusive. Our neurotypical children are aware of children who are neurodivergent in our midst. There is a lot of empathy around us too.
A lot of people still believe that special needs children are a result of ‘spiritual attack’, how do you look to re-orientate such parents?
This is going to be a lot of work, but we are not giving up. It’s a lot of work because we’re in a society that holds cultural beliefs in higher consideration over scientific evidence. It is not going to happen overnight. The more we speak out, the more people will become aware that it is not a spiritual attack. Knowledge is power. There is indeed no treatment for autism. However, with the right intervention, a struggling autistic child can grow into a non-struggling autistic adult. The more parents know the more this belief is minimized. When we keep the right information going, we will experience change.
When parents of SEN kids approach you, how do you make them feel at ease and give them hope?
FOS means light, and we are the light of the world. I am a positive-minded person and this has helped me surround myself with the positivity I need. Because of my experience with my child, I have worked with many children. I have seen how far they have gone. I’ve seen how they thrive in the places where they are. Based on this, I give parents practical examples and make references to popular figures that have experienced these challenges in the past. I share these experiences with them to give them hope that intervention will help their children as long as they don’t give up.
Nigeria still doesn’t pay much attention to SEN kids, as a stakeholder, what changes would you like to see take place?
I will like to see a lot of changes take place. There are two categories of people with special needs, physically disabled children and those with hidden disabilities. Right now, we are still dealing with children who are physically disabled in this country. The government is not paying attention to the ones with hidden disabilities. As a stakeholder, I will like to see the government establish laws that favors and empower all children with disabilities. Also I would like see the SEN space regulated, such that charlatans will have no place and parents will have access to appropriate support required.
You say you teach regular as well as SEN students together, does this help the latter in any way?
Absolutely. One of the strategies we use in Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is imitation and modelling. For example, in a dance class, some children look at others that are dancing well and copy them. It’s very symbiotic. We are so focused on helping neurodivergent children to fit into our world. We forget that neurotypicals need to learn to fit into their world as well. It’s not just a world for the neurotypical, it is a world for us all to live in. When we do different creative activities, we see them try to rub off each other in a positive light.
You’ve had a great career so far, have you had any difficult moments that made you doubt yourself?
Definitely. Some parents do not quite understand what being on the spectrum means and come to us with the expectations of a cure. They tell us to perform magic but there is no such thing as a cure for autism. Explaining this to a parent could be one difficult task.
Likewise, emphasis should be made on the collaboration of all stakeholders working with the child at home, school and centre for the child to attain a generalization of skills mastered in all environments. This means that if their child is able to master a skill at the centre, same skill must be mastered at home as well at in school environment. Collaboration is key in ABA.
You wear so many hats, how are you able to balance all the roles you play to achieve work-life balance?
As a matter of fact, I haven’t achieved a work-life balance. I am trying. I have a great support system with my husband and children. I am still in the process of achieving that.
What would you tell women looking to go down this path you’re on presently?
I will tell both men and women to come into this field with the right mindset. If you are passionate, then back up your passion with the right certifications. We need good hands in this field. Please if you want to come to this path, you are welcome. Reach out to us, go online, and know the right certifications you need. I will also say that you should be specific in the area you want to specialize in. Come in and stay focused to make a difference.
As a ‘school mum’ to thousands of students over the years, what do you want to be remembered for mostly?
A parent of our beautiful child reported that her daughter said “Lady Light” loves Jesus so much. In addition to being remembered as a lover of Jesus, I will like to be remembered as the lady that is always positive. Humans do not remember what you do to them but will always remember how you make them feel. I will also like to be remembered as that lady that encourages all the time and made them have hope.