Lena McCalla Njee : Giving a voice to special-needs children
When filming for a project looking at how autism affects children and their families wraps up in Jamaican in late April, it will be a deeply personal mission for New Jersey-based teacher Lena McCalla Njee.
Not only is she signed on as 'autism expert', given her specialised training in the area, but the crew will be filming in her 'backyard' - Jamaica - one leg of a three-country tour that includes the United States of America and the United Kingdom.
She is part of a team including United Kingdom (UK) television and radio presenter Monica Price and public relations specialist Barry Tomes.
The film looks at how families are affected by living with autistic children and the difference in how the children are treated and cared for in the three countries.
The documentary and six 30-minute shows will be filmed to deliver to the major television networks in the UK for broadcast.
But the project will also be pulling on a topic Njee knows all too well, having experienced it first hand.
Jamaica-born, she grew up in Bois Content, a community on the outskirts of Old Harbour, St Catherine, and was trained as a primary schoolteacher at Sam Sharpe Teachers' College. She then migrated to the United States, where she did a bachelor's in psychology and graduate studies in special education.
She says that it is a curiosity that has come full circle.
"I became interested in special education, specifically autism, out of a personal experience. A dear friend of mine had twin boys who, at first, seemed to be maturing normally, hitting all their developmental milestones until the age of about 18 months. Each of the boys stopped smiling, stopped playing, stopped making eye contact, plus they were exhibiting other odd behaviours that were just puzzling to everyone. In the end, both boys were diagnosed as having autism. The impact on the family was overwhelming and devastating. In the end, both parents divorced."
The experience fired up her desire to learn and do more.
" I started learning about the signs of autism in children and how to deal with some of the behaviour that these children exhibit. Over the years, I have come to understand that children with autism can learn if they are more understood. My mantra is that all children can learn, and children with autism can learn. They just learn differently," Njee explains.
Her own experience as a child struggling with a learning disorder was added motivation.
"I see myself in these children. I am inspired by them. I remember how frustrating it was for me when as a child, I would always write my name backwards. A doctor explained to my mother that was the how I saw the letters. If there was a treatment for dyslexia when I was growing up, my parents could not afford it. I eventually learnt to write my name with the help of dedicated teachers and my parents who helped me with hand-over-hand daily practice."
Today, Njee works as a special-education teacher in the Irvington School District and has taught at Chad Elementary in Newark as well as the Mount Carmel Guild School for Children with Disabilities.
"In addition to educating these children, I serve as a conduit between them, their families, and school administration. I create individualised learning programmes for the children that I teach and make recommendations for parents and children to get access to additional appropriate resources."
It is this aspect of her job that has her pushing for more.
"For many years, I have observed the impact that a diagnosis of autism has had on families. Some families grow stronger while many fall apart."
Njee says that discrimination and general ignorance of various aspects of the condition are among the challenges common to countries worldwide.
Some challenges come from a deeper, more emotional space, involving an acceptance that there is indeed a problem with the child, knowing where to turn to access appropriate diagnosis and treatment, and dealing with the daily demands of the child's needs. Most parents are unable to afford treatment.
"America has Federal laws in place to protect and educate children with disabilities, however, many parents have to advocate and fight for appropriate services. The attitudes and stigma towards children with autism and other disabilities is not specific to any one culture," Njee says. "More people are becoming aware of autism in the UK and in Jamaica, but major changes need to be implemented, along with awareness. Part of the government legislation should be to educate ALL children. As a society, each one needs to make an avid effort to accept and treat children with disabilities with respect and dignity."
The film project explores the situation in the US, the United Kingdom, and Jamaica.
Njee was pulled in because of her advocacy on the matter.
"A couple of years ago, I met Monica Price, a UK television personality and a producer. She had researched my work and she invited me as a guest on her show (CUPPA TV). We talked about me doing a documentary on how autism affects families from different countries. I thought this would be an excellent platform to give parents an opportunity to tell their story. After the show aired in England, the response was so great that I became committed to do this documentary once I had the backing to produce and air it," she explained.
The project came to life earlier this year, and Njee and the team are hoping that the success will be at different levels.
"My expectations from this documentary are to bring global awareness to autism in Jamaica; to possibly bring funding to the families and children of Jamaica; to advocate for parents and children in Jamaica who don't have a voice; and to drive home the importance of educating all children. Above all, I want this documentary to spur a conversation among the scientific community to find the cause of and the cure for autism."