Evelyn Makena @evemake_g Nigel
Mwangi looks like any other boy battling the rigours of teenage. He is shy and introspective; constantly staring into space in deep thought. But Mwangi is no ordinary teenager.
The Standard Eight pupil at City Primary School is gifted with a remarkable memory. He can tell the day of week on any calendar date as far back and forward as 100 years in seconds.
So phenomenal is his prowess he can tell even dates that fall on a leap year. His memory is so good he can also accurately tell when past events took place. But that is not all that is extraordinary about the 15-year-old.
Being autistic, he has limited speech, avoids making eye contact and is mostly reserved. Ironically, he is not exceptionally good in mathematics as a subject. Mwangi is indeed a cocktail of incredible paradoxes.
A Google search about his peculiar abilities reveals that Mwangi is a ‘savant’, an individual with extraordinary mental ability in a particular area. It is estimated that one in every 10 autistic people in the population exhibit savant abilities, yet there is no exact explanation as to how that happens.
On the other hand, less than one per cent of people within non-autistic population possess similar abilities. Mwangi’s calendar counting abilities were first discovered when he was seven years old.
“He would obsessively stare at the calendar. Then during random discussions in the house which required recalling dates, Mwangi would be the first to remember,” says Paul Gathecha, his father.
Born a normal baby, his parents noticed he was not hitting major development milestones when he was six months. “He slept a lot and was not very active like other children his age,” adds Gathecha.
His parents were anxious and sought medical attention in several hospitals without getting any exact diagnosis until they were finally referred to a lady who founded the Autism Society of Kenya.
It was a confusing time for the parents who tried to enrol their child in a mainstream school thinking that would help him catch up on the delayed milestones like coherent speech.
But the school would not accept him. “It was so heartbreaking. We had been in denial for the longest time hoping that he would eventually be alright. It was so difficult for us. I cried a lot,” says Gathecha, an advocate.
The second born in a family of three later enrolled in City Primary School where there was a special unit for children with autism as the parents embarked on a journey of accepting his condition.
With time, Mwangi was integrated into the regular classes and started learning with other children with no disability. He is among the few Kenyan children living with special needs that are benefiting from inclusive education.
“Integrating them into the mainstream enables them live a full life without limitations. It’s also the right of every child to be included,” says Rachel Wangari, Mwangi’s teacher.
His father says the improvment has been tremendous. “He can button up his shirt, fry his egg, and is toilet trained and can switch off the lights,” he says with pride.
These may sound like small steps to anybody but to his parents it means that Mwangi is well on a journey to self-reliance.