As a society we must help simplify this complex world for autistic children
It is morning and the classroom is ready, waiting for them: the picture cards that stand for the day's activities have been stuck on the schedule board, the number and alphabet worksheets for the one-on-one sessions have been stacked in a corner, the colourful Velcro boards for activities like picture sorting and matching lie on the shelves, the pictures on the classroom wall — a mango, a watermelon, a blazing sun, an umbrella — reinforce the fact that it is summer. The children trickle in; some wave cheerfully at me, one steadily avoids my eye when only yesterday he’d been almost chatty, and some look right through me, completely ignoring my greeting. I am reminded of how the shock of facing tantrums, the challenge of eliciting a response to the simplest of instructions, the disappointment of witnessing a reversion to vague forgetfulness after a few days of apparent growth and the slow pace of any tangible improvement are all an inextricable part of the endeavour that the parents and the educators of these autistic children have taken on.
Umeed, the special school at which I have been volunteering, is one of several schools in Delhi and NCR meant for children with disorders of the autism spectrum. While each case of autism is unique, and there are great variations in the type and intensity of the symptoms observed, in general it is characterised by an inability to cope with social interactions, by alternating reserve and boisterousness that is unmindful of jarring with what is considered appropriate. In many cases, verbal deficiencies and the inability to draw general patterns among seemingly distinct objects and events stunt learning at a very rudimentary level: the child is unable to identify shapes and colours, grasp the names and functions of various objects, learn the right words to use in different situations. Nearly every autistic child suffers from an inability to cope with the transience and often the inconsistency of things like complicated facial expressions and figurative language. Regularity is almost essential for comprehension. Intrusion by other people is alarming. And you fail to see just why you must do something you’re asked to, why a certain thing is expected of you at a certain time.
The teaching strategy in perhaps the widest use is Applied Behavioural Analysis, which focuses on a continuous reinforcement (through a sort of carrot and no-carrot model, which provides continuous encouragement to good work through high-fives, pieces of candy, and so forth) of certain behaviours and likewise discouragement of sudden temper tantrums and blank refusals to follow instructions. TEACCH, another method applied, creates an environment of simple pictures, rhymes, songs and suchlike that aid identification with objects and situations in the real world — this is a sort of simplified model for our complex surroundings.
There is a need for each of us, whether we are directly associated with people suffering from the condition or not, to understand autism, to try to learn what the world looks like through their eyes. Because we are the society that their teachers are trying to help them cope with, and we must create roads that are easier for them to traverse, create a space in our minds, and hence in society, for them to find their feet in.