Vallicia Henry, a teacher at the BVI Autism Centre, takes a student through an activity last week during an open house. Photo: NGOVOU GYANG

“So what does autism mean, really?” Darren Henry asked during a visit to the BVI Autism Centre last week.


Vallicia Henry, a teacher at the BVI Autism Centre, takes a student through an activity last week during an open house. Photo: NGOVOU GYANG
“Autism is a neurological disorder: It is not a disease, it cannot be cured, and you are born with it,” answered Gillian Niles-John, a teacher at the centre. “It affects communication, social interaction and behaviour.”

Mr. Henry, who was visiting the Virgin Islands on vacation, was attending the centre’s April 10 open house, which was part of Autism Month.

Other activities for the ongoing observance included an April 7 march from the Althea Scatliffe Primary School to the Noel Lloyd Positive Action Movement Park, where a fun day followed.

“Most of our energy has been directed towards keeping our Easter Camp going and also towards the fun day at the park,” said Autism Centre programme director Lorna Dawson, who is also supervisor for disability services at the Social Development Department. “The march and the fun day were good; we had a good turnout.”


Mr. Henry, who along with his wife Jerrianne Joseph-Henry was visiting from Antigua and Barbuda, said he knew very little about autism before attending the open house.

“Basically, I thought it was a behavourial disorder, but now I’m learning it’s more neurological,” he said. “I’m happy for that clarification.”
His wife said she is concerned that her nephew might be autistic.

“I have a nephew who has shown some signs that I’m watching, so I wanted to become more aware of what may be going on,” the grade two teacher said.

She added that she might use her new knowledge in her classroom, though she doesn’t know of any facilities like the Autism Centre in her native Antigua.

“I’m not trained to diagnose students,” she said, “so I don’t know if I have autistic students.”

Spreading the word

Though the Autism Centre officially launched in 2012, many residents were not aware of its existence until recently, according to Ms. Dawson.

“It’s hard to judge how much the awareness of autism has grown in the community,” she said. “But I will say it has improved. More people are beginning to be aware of the symptoms of autism and what to look out for.”
Those symptoms often include problems with communication, according to Ms. Dawson.
“They may be nonverbal beyond the age they are supposed to be speaking, or they might be echolalic, just echoing whatever is said to them,” she said. “Sometimes when they speak, you hear a monotonous tone or you might hear them speak with an accent from television.”
Such accents are among the most common signs Ms. Dawson has seen here, she added.

“That’s one of the things I usually pick up first: When I hear a child speak as if they were living abroad,” she added. “They are in the regular pre-school and you hear that kind of tone, then you should begin to pay closer attention.”

There are other telltale signs as well.
“They might also have problems with things done a certain way,” she said. “If I’m supposed to go on this side of the car and you tell me to go on the other side, that’s a problem.”
Working with such children can be challenging, but it is also rewarding, Ms. Niles-John said.
“I’ve learned that you must always be patient, and I’ve learned that children can learn at their developmental level,” she said. “It may take time, but they learn. And it is true that patience is a virtue.”