Groundbreaking autism play in Bedminster
Imagine the life-changing moment you are told that your little boy has autism.
And now imagine that you’ve never heard the word before, your friends say the doctor is talking rubbish, and the rest of your family are putting his struggles down to your bad parenting skills.
It is the confusing and scary position that dozens of Somali women in Bristol have found themselves in.
Researchers both in the UK and the US are currently working to understand why migrant Somali children are more at risk of developing autism than the rest of the population.
And in Bedminster, a play is being staged by acta community theatre and Somali women to reverse some of the stigma which faces parents within the community.
Nura Aabe, a mother whose 17-year-old son Zak Mohamed was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old, helped write the play, called Yusuf Can’t Talk.
Although the prospect of acting out her story on the stage was scary, she said it was important that parents know it is normal and they can get help.
Nura, from Horfield, said that some health conditions, especially mental ones, are not recognised by much of the community.
She said: “There is no word in Somali for autism, and parents in migrant communities really struggle when they get the diagnosis.
“Some of them have travelled to Bristol, their English is bad, and they don’t know what to do.
“When Zak was young, I had never heard of autism. I didn’t know what it meant, I didn’t know what to do. I can’t describe that feeling.
“I told my mother and she dismissed the doctor, she said there was nothing wrong with him. I had my family on one side and the doctor on the other.
“I was trying to integrate and trying to be part of the city. I had to find my own way between the two conflicting opinions.
Zak was also looked at strangely by people, he faced the difficulties growing up.”
Nura, 34, is the founder of Autism Independence, a group based at Silai Centre which runs courses within the Somali community and works with other societies to help dispel the stigma about mental health.
It is currently working directly with around 30 families.
Nura said: “The Somali community is a very segregated from the rest of Bristol.
“Social contact can be difficult, some of the families we work with won’t even talk about their experience with autism, they will only listen to us.
“Staging this play was a very frightening process in the beginning. The women involved went from everyone in the family refusing to talk about the issue, to talking about it on the stage.
“It will cost society so much more not to talk about it.”
It is hoped the play will empower parents and give them confidence to deal with their children’s needs.
Nura said: “For these women, their journey has been phenomenal. A child being diagnosed in any community is hard, but when there is a negative attitude to illness in the community, it is more difficult.
“We want to give them back the confidence and make them proud of their children.”
*Yusuf Can’t Talk is being staged until Thursday, October 22 at acta community theatre. Tickets cost £3.Research
NURA is running a research pilot together with the University of Bristol, looking at why there is a higher prevalence of autism in children of migrant Somali parents than other communities.
Ingrid Jones, one of the directors of Yusuf Can’t Talk, said: “We haven’t got the answer yet. Some theories are that it may be to do with trauma during pregnancy, or to do with the different food pregnant women eat once they arrive in Britain.
“Coupled with the fact that mental health issues are hidden and denied by the community in general, it makes it very difficult for parents.”
The play is also being taken to Rotterdam in November, in the hope it will start debate within more communities in Holland.
Read more: bristolpost