“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” once stated Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, July 16, 2003. True to the quote, Mandela’s weapon is currently being wielded in Ethiopia in attempts to improve the lives of autistic children and, thereby, those of their families.
Autism which is described as a neuro-developmental disorder is characterized by permanent mental retardation that affects many areas of development, including social interaction, communication, and behavior in children. According to a study conducted in Ethiopia in 2022, about 600,000 individuals are said to be living with autism.
For this condition, it’s been drawn that there is a huge lack of awareness in the country regarding this neuro-developmental condition, unfortunately even among health professionals. The stigma surrounding it, the enormous rate of under-diagnosis, the lack of specialists who can recommend appropriate treatment, support, and care (e.g. , speech therapy, support with social interactions and communication, support with behaviour and learning, and care to promote physical and mental health), and the frighteningly small number of schools that can teach these children with special needs, have been a burden that patients with this condition have been facing. It’s a battle against tough odds, but there are some very determined warriors on the front line.
One of the young warriors in the front line is Liya Ayalew, a 12th grade student and the Founder and CEO of a youth-led initiative called “Minds In Motion”. Her Youth-led initiative has recently been aiding in transforming the lives of children with learning disabilities through tech.
Liya Ayalew and her team (Bethelehem Ayalew and Ihsan Shafi) won the ACC 2022 competition, representing the Addis Global Academy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for their velar works in this initiative. The ACC which stands for the African Code Challenge is a coding contest that spans across Africa, inviting all-young individuals from different walks of life from 8 – 16 year to develop a game using the Scratch programming language. In addition to scooping this award, Liya Ayalew and the team’s work was submitted to a global competition and managed to come in 6th place.
Cognizant of the remarkable strides made by Liya and Co, Capital reached out to the charismatic and innovative founder on her initiative and her use of technology on spearheading awareness when it comes to autism. Excerpts;
Capital: What led you to start this project? How did you come up with the idea?
Liya Ayalew: I used to participate in a charity at the autism center called Nehemiah Autism Center. However, the majority of the community’s participation in helping the children in this institution was low. To help with the lack of awareness of the disparity in education and health care for children with learning disabilities is a crisis that cannot be ignored; I decided to take matters into my own hands by leveraging technology to combat the issue.
In order to respond to this pressing issue, we founded a youth organization called “Minds in Motion” together with other friends of mine. In order to make the initiative come to life, we coordinated with the students of Addis Global Academy School and collected more than 20,000 ETB, which helped us in kick starting our project.
Capital: What is the purpose of your youth led organization, Minds In Motion?
Liya Ayalew : Minds in Motion aims to address the challenges faced by children with learning disabilities. In addition, we are actively involved in raising awareness about autism and other learning disabilities through social media campaigns. We used the proceeds from a fundraising event at my school to purchase necessary educational materials for the Nehemiah Autism Center.
Capital: When did you get involved in this activity?
Liya Ayalew: In the past, we have provided various support to children with intellectual disabilities at school, but officially, the Youth-led initiative called Minds in Motion was founded in 2023 and has 40 members so far. Some families think that when their children face something like this, it is a curse or that God is angry, and that should not be the case. We are working aggressively in the awareness raising program so that this type of misinformation comes to an end.
Capital: What has been the rewarding bit of using this type of technology which is geared towards a good purpose?
Liya Ayalew: I had the honor of representing my country in the African Code Challenge, where I emerged as the national champion and ranked 6th internationally. These experiences fueled my desire to use technology as a force to bring about positive change in the field of education.
Capital: What were the challenges you encountered when you entered this task?
Liya Ayalew : In terms of financial aid, the school and institutions were not willing to help, which had a great impact on us. So finances were a chunk of our hurdles, I would say.
Capital: What are your future goals?
Liya Ayalew: Our vision extends beyond our immediate efforts. We aspire to create a more inclusive and understanding society in Ethiopia, where neurodiversity is celebrated and supported. Through our educational initiatives and fundraising activities, we are sowing the seeds of positive change and hope for a more inclusive future.
By sharing our experiences and successes, we hope to inspire and empower more young individuals to take up the cause of neurodiversity awareness, fostering a ripple effect of positive change and inclusivity throughout Ethiopia and beyond.
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