The ‘Art for Autism’ festival reiterated that autism is a special ability, and not a disability

The Art for Autism Festival saw enthusiastic participation of autistic children and parents from all over the country. There were art, drama, dance and movement therapy sessions that encouraged the children to shed their inhibitions and express themselves. “This is the first time I have seen him smile and speak in monosyllables,” says Babu of his teenage son Sabeer Khan. “It is a milestone for a recluse like him.” Sabeer who initially refused to participate, opened up and mingled with people on the second day of the festival.

According to Parasuram Ramamoorthy, Chairman of Velvi Trust, an organization that has been offering training modules in theatre and art for autistic people for the past 15 years, “If the strengths of these children can be identified and worked on, they can develop into exemplary individuals.”

Zill Botadkar, a movement facilitator from Mumbai who has worked in the field of special needs for 12 years, conducted a session on dance and movement therapy.

According to her activities such as group dance enhance the children’s social interaction. “The emotional and social well-being of the child is also taken care of, as they gain confidence. Since, they are unable to express themselves, they hide pent up stress. Breaks in between routines, where they can dance and move helps them a lot,” she said.

One of the parents, Akila whose son Nishant is autistic said, “Autism is not a disability. If you know what to do with these kids, it can be transformed into a special ability.” Akila and Nishant have been regulars at this festival for the past three years. After attending Velvi’s orientation programmes for parents, she has identified Nishant’s interest in sports, running, cycling and trekking. “I want to make him a sprinter or a trekker,” she says. Of late, Nishant has also been dabbling with the computer and has designed the festival’s logo on MS Paint. Another parent, Lakshmi, who has come from Coimbatore says the festival provided a conducive environment for both the children and the parents to unwind.

Pointing out that art played an important part, Shaloo Sharma, an art therapist who runs a school for the differently-abled in Gurgaon, said any form of creativity brought out the innate and helped in the rediscovery of the individual.

“I remember my first student, 15 years ago. She didn’t speak, but now she does,” she said. “Art helps them develop speech slowly.” Therapists also believe that art when practised in a group helped these children cultivate a team spirit and communication skills.

Naree Shilats, a theatre specialist from Australia had something similar to say. “Theatre is therapeutic and comedy is a great way to interact with children,” she explained. She keenly observed the body movements of the children and attempted to develop them into a unique body language. She called her theatre sessions ‘The art of clown medicine’ where facial expressions are worked upon to evoke slapstick comedy. Scarves, colourful ribbons, flowers, rings and hats were used as props. “These are just to create a performance space. Through theatre, autistic children can be turned into great performers,” said Naree.

Dr. Karthik, an occupation therapist also held a theatre workshop for younger kids. “Through small dramas, the children can be taught to the daily basic needs and how to behave in public,” he said.

In a session for parents, Dr. Parasuram explained how the talents of autistic children can be developed into professions and business.

Benzy, an autistic girl and a successful singer was an inspiration. She performed on the last day of the festival. Twenty-one-year-old Benzy from Delhi has sung in hundreds of stage functions and fund-raiser concerts all over the country. She is also a pianist.

Her mother Kavita Kumar, while talking of her initial days of struggle, said that she was fortunate enough to have identified Benzy’s interest in music at an early age. “I trained her in piano and made her listen to songs and she developed her interest into a talent,” Kavita said. Today, Benzy sings Bollywood and English songs and Shah Rukh Khan numbers are her favourite.