Enabling disabled people to become a part of the mainstream has been a challenge for different sections of society. Sanchayan Bhattacharjee takes a look at the learning process and opportunities of autistic children.
While official acts and provisions have been constructed to help disabled people in their workplaces, the foundation for their inclusion must be laid during the education process. Among the different disorders that can affect a child, autism continues to remain one of the most ignored and misunderstood one. It is a neurodevelopment disorder that affects a person’s basic communication skills and his/her dealings with other people, something most of us take for granted. Since it is a spectrum disorder, it affects a person at different levels and is often accompanied by learning disabilities as well as over or under sensitivity to taste, sound, smell, colours and light. “Most general practitioners aren’t aware of this disorder and hence cannot diagnose it. As a result, parents are often left unaware of their child’s predicament, thus sending him/ her to a private school, where they often react violently,” says Arunaraje Patil, Director of ‘Behind the Glass Wall’, a documentary depicting the struggles of autistic children. According to her, due to this ignorance, both at home and outside, there have been cases of these children either running away from school or being thrown out because of improper behaviour.
A significantly strong set of opinion makers believe that it is mandatory for autistic children to be enrolled in special schools that will gradually enable them to adjust to their deficiencies. “In mainstream schools, there is a lot of segregation. Other kids are often cruel to autistic kids who cannot be integrated at one go. Sensitivity does not come easily in such places,” says Radhike Khanna, Vice Principal, SPJ Sadhana School, an educational and vocational training centre for children with special needs.
As Khanna mentions, the first step while educating autistic children is to make them feel accepted. Once that happens, then the transformation begins. A key component here is to understand if what has been learnt is momentary or has it translated into a change in behaviour. “For example, when we are teaching them to be polite with strangers, we observe them during a movie screening to see how they react amidst other people,” she adds.
While the educational needs of autistic children are similar to that of others, the process of imparting it is different. Therefore, teachers become an important cog in this wheel of integration. “Students who do not speak much generally have behavioural issues. If they are violent, you have to identify the cause which may be something as simple as over sensitivity to too much noise,” says Simida Korreia, Teacher, SPJ Sadhana School.
After diagnosis, which according to Korreia can vary in duration for each child, a tailored teaching process begins. “Instead of papers and pencils, we prefer to teach Math through movement since it helps activate the brain in a better way,” she adds. Audio visuals, costumes, singing to enhance speech, art therapy, and hydrotherapy are some of the other methods of teaching which helps these students.
One out of 150 children fall under the autistic spectrum. Estimates suggest that there aren’t a proportionate number of special schools to train these children. Thus it becomes important for mainstream schools to help out. “Parents are often in denial about the situation. We had a case where parents withdrew their kid from the school. After 15-20 days, the father returned and asked us to share the behaviour assessment results which subsequently indicated that the child was autistic,” says Jayashree Iyer, Senior Manager, Inclusive Education, Zee Learn Limited, which prepares a Child Behavior Assessment Report as soon as teachers find something unusual in a child.
So how does a mainstream school deal with an autistic child post diagnosis? According to Iyer, a combination of individual education plan and differentiated classroom strategies in core subjects works in most cases. “We focus on conceptual learning, instead of covering the entire mainstream school syllabus. Even their exam yardsticks are different,” she adds. This process reaps dividends within three months as students make progress in both learning as well as social behaviour.
Although there is no broad consensus with regards to the special versus mainstream schools debate, the need to sensitise, and train more teachers to cater to autistic children emerges clearly. “Our aim should be to get these children accepted in society. The only way that will happen is if they earn a living on their own,” signs off Khanna.