Let us talk Autism
Part of the answer lies in the educational system adopting a more flexible approach.
These days, children with autism and their parents are an excited lot. Finally through a two hour commercial film they can expect a little more understanding, from their relatives, friends, teachers, peers and associates. A nuanced and compassionate film Taare Zameen Par is already receiving awards for its cinematography. By making this film Aamir Khan has placed in the centre stage yet again the plight of over 70 million people with disabilities in this country and especially the 1.7 million children with autism.
One in approximately 500 children is born autistic in India. Autism impacts the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Children and adults with autism typically have difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities. The disorder makes it hard for them to communicate with others and relate to the outside world.
They can also do it
In some cases, aggressive and self-injurious behaviour may be present. Persons with autism may exhibit repeated body movements (hand flapping, rocking), unusual responses to people or attachments to objects and resistance to changes in routines. Individuals may also experience sensitivities in the five senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. Autism is four times more prevalent in boys than girls and usually occurs during the first three years of life.
However, it is important to remember that through early intervention and productive support from their family, friends and professionals autistic children can live productive lives. Research also indicates that if autistic children are given early intervention in the form of specific and appropriate training methods that are tailored to a child’s needs and learning style, they can reach their maximum potential.
While the disorder is not rare, the majority of autistic children in India do not get diagnosed early or correctly. Infact a search for a diagnosis can send the parents of autistic children onto a road of anguish and waste of scarce economic resources.
The next big challenge faced by parents of autistic children is to find a school that accepts the child and is willing to and knowledgeable enough to cater to the child’s special needs. While the Sarva Shiksha Abhayan launched in 2002 calls for “Inclusive Education” and makes it mandatory for all children between 6 and 14 years of age to be in school, the reality is that children with disabilities (CWDs) are largely ignored in the classroom.
While this may be the situation in government schools, private schools may simply refuse to accept the child. Parents of children with autism are finding that while searching high and low for a school that will meet their child’s educational needs; the teaching fraternity is all but ignorant about autism and the pedagogical requirements for these children.
Role of educators
Thus it is not uncommon to hear of autistic children being frequently punished and labeled as “problem” children. Since autistic children have developmental delay and may be older for the class, they are often rejected during admission into school, as being “not up to the standard of non disabled children and not appropriate for their age”.
Part of the answer to the educational needs of children with autism lies in the educational system adopting a more flexible approach. It is imperative that every school accept CWDs including children with autism, not only because the law says so, but also because a school is a microcosm of society. In school an autistic child learns vital social skills and non disabled children learn to become sensitive to CWDs.
Every educational institution must have at least one special educator. The special educator must design the curriculum for each child with special needs, modifying it to suit the child’s level.
The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 recognizes autism as a disability however people with autism and their parents need to vociferously fight for their rights using this Act to their advantage. Offices of the National Disabilities Commissioner and State Disabilities Commissioner need to create greater awareness on autism thus saving lakhs of innocent children, horrific experiences that scar them.
The above article was published in the Bangalore edition of Deccan Herald on 18th January 08