Driven by a passion to assist autistic children

The Autism Foundation, first opened by Nicolene Botha in East London in 2021, provides educational and boarding facilities for autistic children aged 3 to 18.
The Autism Foundation, first opened by Nicolene Botha in East London in 2021, provides educational and boarding facilities for autistic children aged 3 to 18.

East London teacher Nicolene Botha’s love for autistic children started in 1997 when she applied for a temporary teaching post at the Quest School for Learners with Autism in Nelson Mandela Bay.

Twenty-seven years later, the Local Heroes nominee runs three branches of her nonprofit organisation for autistic children, The Autism Fountain.

Botha opened the first branch of The Autism Fountain in East London in January 2021, a second in Pretoria in September 2023 and a third in Kuils River, Cape Town, in April. 

All three branches offer boarding facilities. 

When she joined Quest School in 1997, Botha was meant to stay on for three months but, observing her passion and understanding of autistic children, the school kept her for a further three months. 

“My husband was transferred to East London and I started to study again and completed every possible workshop about autism,” she said.

“I also completed my BEd (Hon) in learners support at NWU [North-West University] through distance learning.

“Mrs Barlett, principal of Parkland Special School in Beacon Bay, invited me to apply for a vacant post, because of my qualifications.

“Even though Parkland is a special needs school, there is still a different phase for autistic children.”

Though Parkland catered for children with different disorders, Botha said she realised that autistic children became anxious during activities such as physical education and assembly, which were also attended by non-autistic children. 

“That was why I opened an institution just for autistic children.

“We constantly receive positive feedback from parents, and it shows me that pursuing my dream was the right decision,” she said. 

Botha was nominated by Merchalene Smith for this year’s Local Heroes Awards. 

“The Autism Fountain operates as an educational centre and boarding facility for children with autism aged 3 to 18,” Smith said.

“The dearth of affordable autism centres in South Africa has created a pressing need.

“Nicolene has established the East London centre out of her deep passion for autistic children and they are flourishing.”

The Autism Fountain is registered with Impaq and offers the CAPS curriculum. 

“I was overwhelmed with the response and in September 2021 we had to expand because of the interest and the increase in totals,” Botha said.

“We have a dedicated team of qualified teachers and trained staff, and I think because of the love for these children we are making it a success ... I feel blessed because I know The Autism Fountain is a happy place for autistic children.”

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Botha published My Talking Book, a visually stimulating book for autistic children.

“An autistic child learns better because they are visual thinkers.

“That’s the reason visual schedules form a very important part of their life,” she said.

Botha said if she won, she would use the prize money to host outreach workshops in rural and surrounding areas.

“I would host outreach workshops in our rural and surrounding areas that would educate and teach all parents, caregivers and guardians who struggle with understanding their children and knowing more about autism. 

“I would also use it to upgrade a room into a proper sensory and therapy room in order for autistic children to thrive and reach their full potential.

“Most autistic children face sensory barriers and are non-verbal, so I would buy the necessary technology apps to help them to communicate.

“What we at The Autism Fountain strive to do is to help, love and care for autistic children,” she said.

• Nominations for 2024 may be submitted by emailing a 500-word motivation to Nominations must include the nominee’s name, cellphone number and email address.



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