Dr. Nirvana Pistoljević: Commitment to Helping Children in B&H With Autism and Other Developmental Delays

04By: Medina Malagić

For the last two years, Dr. Nirvana Pistoljević has been living and working in B&H in raising awareness about and working towards shifting the paradigm of educational practices, with a focus on children with Autism and other developmental problems in B&H.

In a country where mental illness, especially Autism, is not only well understood, but where the services currently offered lag far behind that of other European countries, the conditions in this country are not conducive to offering fair treatment for children with developmental disorders.

In order for Dr. Pistoljević to fund her project in this country and to implement the newest evidence based practices in schools, she started an NGO called ”EDUS-Education for All”. Currently, her NGO pays for its multidisciplinary team at the school where she works, Mjedenica, and is composed of teachers.

Based on her experience in being engaged in the pedagogical field in Sarajevo, Dr. Pistoljević said that one of the major problems in this country is that the Ministry of Education and Science does not put money into scientific research. One of the negative and long-term impacts is the outdated education system.

”Politics runs everything here, including education. The percentage of investing in science by the government here is below that of any other country in Europe. The government does not support science, and is not motivating people to develop this field. Thus, it is left up to individuals, and they are the minority”, describes Dr. Pistoljević.

The current nature of the education system in B&H is still premised on one that existed before the war. ”It does not fit the system of older men running the game”, points out Dr. Pistoljević.

In effect, this means that no actual learning is being done. The education system in this country is dominated by older professors who are the ones responsible for voting on any change. Collaboration with other departments is non-existent. As an example, Dr. Pistoljević explained that collaboration between the Pedagogical and Psychology Departments is null, which precludes an interdiscipinary approach in two fields that are closely related.

The antiquated education system in B&H continues to have a detrimental impact on students. These are the people who will one day become involved in such fields, and unfortunately they are not adequately prepared to turn knowledge into applicable methodology, nor are they motivated to conduct research.

”No research is being done. That was my major idea becaue I am a researcher. I tried hard to motivate some professors, the younger ones. However, none of the research is experimental, and no experimental design is being done. Many do not know how to make an experimentally valid scale, and students have not been exposed that. For our field, research should be one of the main purposes”, explains Dr. Pistoljević.

She further explained that when they graduate with a degree, they do not know anything about methodology. ”When I first started teaching, I told myself that I cannot simply give them articles to read. They do not now how to turn research into methodology”.

Another major problem that she has to take into account is the deep-rooted stigma to mental illness. The stigma is exacerbated when it comes to Autism. Dr. Pistoljević delineated the complexity of Autism and why this disorder is not an easy one to understand. Autism involves a range of developmental disorders and its severity ranges from mild to severe. Unlike Down syndrome, which is easy to see, Autism is not very well understood. Children with autism are locked in their own worlds.

So, in a country where the special education schools do not have the knowledge or skills required to help and educate children who suffer from autism, parents struggle because schools usually take children with mild disabilities and reject the ones whose Autism or other developmental disdorders are more severe. The approach of special education schools is to simply ‘take the kids, and ask little of them. The expectation of kids with special needs is low, and there is no special methodology used’, said Dr. Pistoljević.

With this approach, Dr. Pistoljević warns that they are making invalids of children. ‘’The kids I tested were at the lowest level of functioning because no one worked with them until they were seven. By then, the brain is already set. So what happens until six years old is crucial, and it is difficult to change after that. The biggest development in human life is from zero to six years old. This is why there is an entire terminology on early development. The gains are bigger and greater. If you take a two year old with Autism, then the child is only two years behind. If you take a seven year old with Autism who has never been treated before, then that child is seven years behind’’, said Dr. Pistoljević.

She applies methodologies that are based on her specialization in language development and research on education. ”It is about the brain and what skills need to be developed. So language is very interesting. Something magical happens between two and three years of age.

She said that the key is to make up for what is missing, and not to maintain some low or average level. The amount of time spent on teaching children with special needs is not enough, and she specified that it is not possible to work with children only sixteen hours a week and to expect any positive changes.

”Normal kids are behind. Imagine kids with needs? Teachers just cut the curriculum in half. There is no accountability. You have kids in special education schools who attend for nine years and end up not having learned anything”.

Dr. Pistoljević has been carefully monitoring the structure of the education system in this country, especially when it comes to special education and helping children with special needs to develop their abilities. This is a difficult challenge because she faces difficult challenges, but her determination and strenuous efforts to affect change have made some inroads. After one year, she went from seven to twenty students. After one year of implementing proper evidence-based methodology, she said that the children made up what was missing and returned to having normal lives.

While her advanced knowledge in this very specialized field and extensive research and professional experience, Dr. Pistoljević remains committed to helping children, parents and professionals in this country in changing the education paradigms in B&H.








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