The numbers of Fijians with Autism are really hard to understand. From the best I can tell, it is up to 1 in 40 people in Fiji have a form of Autism. According to an article, they have over 500 children that they have confirmed with thousands more (up to 20,000 people) yet to be officially told they have autism.
Autism spectrum disorder is a condition related to brain development that impacts how a person perceives and socializes with others, causing problems in social interaction and communication.
As a society, Fijians often don’t see brain development as people in the United States does. It seems that the way that people relate to challenging concerns is more communal. Families are impacted by disabilities very directly, but they see it as a duty to care for them. It is part of what known as “The Pacific Way.”
There have been no real studies about the impact of Autism in Fiji. I believe this is partly because no one wants to face the challenges of it in the society. The first study completed (in 2023) has found hundreds of children those functional limitations.
However, the question remains: how do we address autism in Fiji?
The transporting of Autism
In my experience, families that live in Suva or Lautoka often transport a child with autism back to the villages where the extended family can care for them. This makes where the child is cared for around the clock better and enables for the parents to be able to work in Suva to provide better for the child. Is it ideal? No. Does it seem to work in Fijian culture? Yes. (For the Indian population, this is far more complex!)
This has its challenges though. Often the level of education that they receive is not as good as the schooling they would get in Suva, for example. They also have limited social interaction in the villages as well. They end up just wandering in the village while be looked after by the family. This can lead to delays in educational understanding while is never positive. Fijians have a low literacy rates and it becomes even much lower for people with learning disabilities.
The benefits of this arrangement are there is more time committed to the care of the person with Autism. They often can work through some of the challenges by extended care. This is in contrast to the busy lifestyle in Suva or Lautoka. This is, by far, the benefit of this movement of the person to the village.
Of course, the limitation is the quality of care. Often, they rarely seek a medical professional because, by Fijian standards, it is expensive to travel to Suva and back for doctor’s visits. A bus ticket from the Coral Coast round trip is about $20 USD. However, to a villager with little in the way of cash; this could be a major challenge to overcome.
As you can see, the issue of Autism in Fiji is far more complex than people want to realize.
How to minister to them?
This is a question that there are as many answers as there is questions. Everyone seems to have a different ideas or have no idea at all. Simply put, there is nothing standardized about it. The foundation of all concern for people with Autism must be compassion. There must be a heart to truly and authentically care for them as Jesus loves them. That much everyone agrees on.
Do we seek to educate them as another child in the village or specialize care for them? There is some debate. Light the Nations seeks to be there as a caring person and give them a place to grow in love. To have a place to express themselves is critical to developing despite the Autism.
The goal must be to make them as much part of the community as possible. This includes the community of faith (local churches). They need to have a normal of life as possible. Any attempt to minister to them must be rooted in the desire to give them an authentic life within the Fijian culture.
How does this look for each person and in each ministry? There will be always be those questions but the concern must be for the person with autism, not the ministry. Any model that we use must be normalize the person and bring them to the saving knowledge of Christ. If we fail at this, we have just become humanistic like the atheists.
Light the Nations philosophy
First of all, let’s be clear: we believe in the healing power of Jesus. The power of God can come and transform a brian in a moment and they are forever changed. The first focus is the healing ministry of Jesus.
With that said, we have compassion as a core value. Healing is not an excuse to not flow in the grace and concern of the Lord for people that are hurting. As a practice, the first challenge of walking this out and seeing where each person is on the spectrum and developing a realistic plan of care for them.
It might be as simple as just sitting next to them on the beach where they have someone close to them. It might mean taking them to Suva to the doctor’s appointments. It might be helping them with educational tutoring. The philosophy of Light the Nations is one plan may not work for another. It is about results, not making a scalable model.
This is walking out what Jesus told us in the parable of the Good Samaritan. As Heidi Baker would put it, “It is stopping for the one.” Every person is created differently and caring for the one in front of us is changing lives one person as a time and ultimately see villages come to the foot of the Cross.
The heart of the gospel is for the person with Autism. The heart of the Church must be for the person with Autism. If it is not, we have a problem within our hearts.