Parasuram Ramamoorthi suggests theatre as therapy for children with autism and assures parents that each child has a special ability

Excited laughter and shrill cries fill the halls of Steps Rehabilitation Centre. Parasuram Ramamoorthi and the children are playing a game. They stand in a circle holding their hands. They run around and clap their hands. The autistic children have come with their parents to attend the theatre therapy workshop, organised by the Centre as a part of World Autism Awareness Week. Dr. Ramamoorthi, Chairman of Velvi Foundation, Madurai, a trust that offers training of Indian arts and theatre for autistic children, conducted the event.

He begins the workshop with a few basic exercises. Some of the children follow him, while some others are preoccupied with other activities. A girl breaks off from the group and plays with a toy dholak. Dr. Ramamoorthi does not force her to join the workshop. Instead, he puts the dholak around her neck and asks her to play. Soon the other children crowd around the girl and thump their hands on the floor in time.

Eye contact is one important aspect of these workshops, he explains. “Theatre is a useful tool to work on eye contact. Even traditional forms of theatre, such as Kathakali, give importance to the eye movements.”

He then asks a 10-year-old to tell a story. As the boy narrates the story of a wolf, which attacks its reflection in water, Ramamoorthi calls a few other kids and asks them to enact the story. One boy becomes the wolf, two more form a bridge and a few others swing a dupatta to show the ripples in the water. “It is important to tell your children stories. Imagination plays an important role in improving their cognitive abilities,” he tells the parents.

There are activities, focussing on social skills. Dr. Ramamoorthi directs a scene where a boy is threatened by a stranger while walking on the road. As the scene unfolds the child does not react at all when the stranger shouts at him. Ramamoorthi tells the boy that when he meets the man he should push him and then run away. They enact the scene once again and this time the boy does as he is instructed. “Now, most parents worry about practical difficulties like these,” he says.

“Now both of you come here and hold each other’s hands. One of you should close your eyes and follow the other around,” Dr. Ramamoorthi tells two of the boys. Both of them, one leading the other, go around the hall in circles. Dr. Ramamoorthi observes that the two boys, by now, have become comfortable with each other. “This is how friendship develops. Unfortunately, the parents do not create contexts like these for the children.”

Dr. Ramamoorthi, who was a professor of theatre at Madurai Kamaraj University and has done his doctoral research in the field of theatre as a therapy to manage autism, has a separate session with the parents. He tells them that each autistic child is born with a special intelligence. “Your child can be a copy writer, mechanic, actor or even a musician,” he says.

Being non-verbal does not mean the child’s future is bleak, says Ramamoorthi. “I knew of an autistic boy, who loved trees. He could not speak. He is now a carpenter and self-reliant.”

He points out that the parents need to know more about managing autism. “The problem is we want our children to do what we want them to do. However, each child has an intelligence of his own. It is the responsibility of the parents to spot these talents in him. The child should be sent for conventional education only up to a certain age. After this, they should be let free to develop their talents.”