Bala Siksha Sahayata in Madurai strives to enable children with autism to live as full participating members of the family and community

Ritesh paces across the classroom, nearly bumping into the cinderblock wall before he turns and strides the other way. He says something to himself in a high-pitched voice. His hands are pressed together and fingers wriggling. Suddenly, he turns and giggles. His giggles subside as quickly as they started.

The eight-year-old student at Bala Siksha Sahayata (BSS) is autistic. He is one of 25 children the school is helping to break out of a closed-in world.

A special educator flashes laminated picture cards at Ritesh and asks him to point out what he wants. Ritesh’s brain disorder interferes with his ability to communicate. The teacher helps him to take his finger to the card that communicates his needs – whether he is hungry or thirsty, wants to sleep or go to the toilet, wants to draw or play.

His classmate Abirami gets agitated when she sees a stranger in the classroom and starts crying. Her teacher tries to pacify her by redirecting her to a colourful book. She doesn’t like to be touched or hugged, either. The students have been divided into groups of four according to age and progress in cognitive skills. Each group is assisted by one educator and an assistant.

Says principal Shaheen Suvarna, a drama therapist from Bangalore, “Raising an autistic child takes its toll on the family. Parents often feel stretched. I always tell parents they need an exit plan and a place of comfort.”

Place of Hope

The year-old BSS, governed by the Lakshmi Vidya Sangham, is gradually developing its expertise in autistic education and turning into a place of hope for parents. “The small number of students, the high teacher-to-student ratio and the streamlined learning plans give us all a direction to explore further,” says Shaheen.

Adds project director Selvi Santosham, “We did a thorough study of day care centres in the city and found none of them concentrated on the child’s emotional needs. Also, there was a mixed group everywhere.” Autistic children, she says, are very different from children with other mental disabilities and have to be trained differently. “We have made a small beginning to help them blossom.”

Teachers use a picture communication system to modify children’s behaviour. Visual schedules -- boards on which Velcro pictures are attached -- train them in daily activities. The Sensory Integration Therapy uses colourful balls, swings and other play equipment to meet kinesthetic needs. The children receive speech, occupational and physical therapy.

“There is nothing wrong in the behavioural problem of an autistic child,” asserts Shaheen, “It is a pattern of communication for them because they are unable to use language. Their mind thinks but thoughts do not become words.”

Special educator Sunita Gupta adds, “They have high IQ and recognise smell, sight, sound early. They are good at things requiring repetitive action like music, drawing, cutting vegetables, gardening, sorting or packing. They love the outdoors and enjoy the bus ride to school.”

Progress

Progress is often heartbreakingly slow. But BSS within a year has been able to send five of its children from last year’s batch of 16 to a regular school, also run by LVS.

“It is easy to coordinate our child’s progress and difficulties when they go to one of our own schools,” says Shaheen. “Children with higher autistic functions learn to live better, can speak a handful of words, spell their names with letter tiles, do simple puzzles, understand contextual language better and follow instructions well. Their social behaviour has to be changed.”

The school team each month sets a target and works on every child individually to achieve it. Parents need to cooperate fully as the activities need lots of patience. “One has to constantly focus on and develop what is special in each child. Ours is a highly individualised programme as autism has no common manual for treatment or care,” says Shaheen.

Importantly, if an autistic child is prepared for a situation, the child is not difficult to manage. It is the unpredictability of something that angers them. At BSS, every child’s birthday is celebrated with an invitation to all parents. “This helps the child to know what to expect and be prepared. They dislike surprises.”

The teachers took all the BSS students to a staffer’s wedding recently. “They all behaved perfectly,” says Sunita. It’s small, successful moments like these that keep teachers and parents going.

Autism is an illness with myriad complications and has no known cause or cure. But timely diagnosis, early intervention, individualised therapies and constant guidance may minimise its effects and help these children navigate the world around them.

As Shaheen says, “Many parents ask when their child will be cured. I tell them we train them so that they have something beyond being locked in a padded room. Disability is created by the society and the surroundings. Families need to feel empowered to facilitate a barrier-free environment for their children with autism.”

(Names of students have been changed)

(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail to soma.basu@thehindu.co.in to tell about someone you know who is making a difference)