For Mojdeh Bayat, an associate professor and director of the early childhood education doctoral program, personal and professional interests converged to create a passion for teaching caregivers in West Africa—parents, teachers, doctors and nurses—how to nurture and educate children with autism.
“Behind the work of most scholars is a story, and that’s certainly true for me,” she says. "My son has severe autism, and after his diagnosis I went back to school, not to become a lawyer as I had planned, but to study child development and special education. At the same time, coming from Iran I had always intended to help people in developing countries who struggle in conditions of poverty and ignorance.”
Through a colleague she heard about service opportunities in West Africa, and so decided to educate people in Abidjan, Ivory Coast about developmental disabilities in children. She quickly found that people wanted to know about autism more than anything else. “Because autism is a spectrum, it’s more common than other disabilities. That leads to more interest,” she says.
“Also, humans are drawn to things that are strange. The behavior of children with severe autism is different from that of ‘typical’ children: They hand-flap, walk back and forth, make noises; they’re living in their own world. In the past, even in advanced countries, people assumed that these children couldn’t learn anything. In places like West Africa, they’re believed to be possessed and evil-spirited; many don’t survive because of neglect or worse. So, the extremities of autism also draw attention. Finally, some people want coping mechanisms: ‘This child can’t communicate: What do I do now?’ “
In the beginning, the journey to reach caregivers was uphill, one step at a time.
“I’ve been going to Abidjan every winter for eight years,” she recalls. “The first few were all about making connections. Africans have a very oral culture, so the only way to get anything done is face-to-face. That meant waiting, waiting, waiting to meet with the right people. Eventually I got through to the Ministry of Health, and my work began.”
Bayat started with one- and two-hour presentations to various stakeholders—parents, nuns and nurses, doctors, teachers, ministry of health personnel and community service providers—of simple messages: “This is who I am; this is what I do. This is how developing countries help children with special needs; this is how we educate them.”
Then, she conducted half-day and whole-day workshops, open to the public. “My plan was to give people an enlightened understanding, which they could bring to their own work and lives,” she says. “People—even teachers—would tell me that they beat the kids with autism and that they were ashamed of their behavior. But when they learned, they changed. And if I can say that I made that change happen, even in just a handful of people, then I’m happy.” In the last few summers, Bayat has conducted “train the trainers” workshops so caregivers could carry on her lessons.
In the classroom, Bayat’s work in Africa illustrates for students the complexities of working with people from other cultures, as she explains: “Even if our graduates never teach overseas, they’ll confront ‘foreign’ expectations and assumptions as they teach children from immigrant families and as they work with these children’s parents. They’ll inevitably be exposed to thinking that is alien to them. My lessons from Africa are about understanding and reaching out to different communities.”
Also, seeing faculty active in community service is a positive influence on students. “As we advocate for human rights, our students learn to see ‘the other’ differently,” says Bayat. “That’s fundamental to an education at DePaul.”