Breaking barriers

Our world and the world of a child with autism are not dichotomous. Nor is it right to think that our world is complete, while theirs isn’t. In fact, the “boundaries” between our world and theirs are our creations. And Sanmathi, a programme organised by Hitham Trust, showed how art breaks down these artificial barriers we have erected.

Bombay Jayashri said that she was amazed when a child with autism came to her after a concert and told her that she’d got a note wrong! Such experiences led to the establishment of Hitham by Jayashri ten years ago, the purpose being to use art to engage with special children, especially those with autism.

Best vehicle

Introducing the speakers, Raja Krishnamurthy, said that art, which was never static, was perhaps the best vehicle to help special children express themselves. Dr. Parasuram Ramamoorthi, director of Velvi, an institute based in Madurai, said that theatre helped children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) develop communication skills. While we wear masks all the time, to conceal our feelings, the opposite is true of autistic children. They speak the truth, without inhibition. But while these children do not fall back upon the kind of figurative masks we wear, they enjoy wearing actual masks. When they wear a mask, and look in a mirror, they see a static face, not one whose expressions keep changing by the second.

This is a huge plus, since those with ASD do not like differing expressions. Their attention span, which is usually between zero to five seconds, increased to 180 seconds, when they wore masks.

Shalu Sharma, from Pallavanjali, who has two decades of experience in special education, said that usually when we talk of art we skip the process, and focus on the end product. She uses visual art to help special children communicate, and has now learnt the value of the process of art. Being non-vocal, visual art helps when a child is a poor communicator. In the case of one child, she drew stick figures in different poses, to find out about the child’s likes and dislikes.

Zill Botadkar, art based therapy practitioner and founder of Lighthouse, said that the word “therapy” was a scary one for parents. But therapy can be made fun, and once they realise this, their perspective changes. In the case of a seven-year old, she found that what seemed to be behavioural problems were in fact sensory problems.

Kavita Krishnamurthi, a parent volunteer with Hitham, said that every child had the right to aesthetic experiences. When special children leave school, music and other arts may be one way to keep them engaged.

Professor T.K. Srikanth, from IIIT Bengaluru, said that the advantage of technology is that it puts things within our reach anytime, anywhere. Jayashri and her students cannot be physically present to teach the many students who might need such classes. Technology can help in scaling. The dream of those at the E-health research centre at IIIT is to make this scaling possible.

Mr. Vivek Rana — CEO, The PRactice, New Delhi — said what he liked best about Hitham was that the volunteers embraced the child for what he was, without thinking of what he should be.

Shalu Sharma’s words perhaps best summed up the proper approach to autism. You cannot swim against a strong current, but you can go with the flow. That is true of autism as well. Don’t try to fix it, because it doesn’t need fixing. Move with the current, and maybe you can redirect it, if you want to do it at all.

Soothing touch

Some parents spoke to this correspondent about how Hitham had helped them. K. Sangeetha and S. Kesavamurthi, said they discovered that their son Jothi Kiran, a child with autism, could hold a tune, even when he was barely two years old. The usually restless child would sit perfectly still, when his grandmother sang Kanda Sashti Kavacham. Since the age of nine he has been learning music through Hitham, and can sing as many as 60 kritis. He is also learning mridangam, drums and keyboard. All he has to do is listen to a song once, and both tune and words get imprinted in his memory. “He knows at least 1,000 songs, and this includes film songs, classical songs and bhajans,” said Kesavamurthi.

Priya’s son Pranav attends Hitham’s music sessions called Manas, and also listens to music on YouTube. “Music has reduced his hyperactivity, and that has helped me as a parent. Earlier I used to be withdrawn. Now I have become more outgoing,” says Priya.

Sankalp, We CAN, V-Excel and Ability foundation are some of the schools that work with Hitham.

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Printable version | Jul 23, 2021 10:23:21 AM |

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