Hippies of Autism

On World Autism Awareness Day, the author writes about life with her Autistic son. It is a journey of discovery where the destination is not that important, she says

Updated - May 21, 2016 07:37 am IST

Published - April 01, 2014 06:35 pm IST - Coimbatore

Nishant at an adventure camp.

Nishant at an adventure camp.

Independent minded, stubborn, active, bright, lazy, happy-go-lucky, loving, caring, sensitive …these were adjectives used by my teachers to describe me when I was a student and the same can be used to describe my son Nishant. I became a successful software professional, but later switched tracks when I had to learn to become a “special” teacher to him.

Nishant has Autism. He finds it difficult to navigate the mainstream world. We always knew he was smart, in a very different way. He can read whole words. Remember direction to places years after we went there, loves moving around and has endless energy. He loves food and cooking, nature and animals, colours, paint and technology.

For many years we tried teaching him the way other kids learnt, tried pushing him into a round box, when indeed, he was a square peg. And this did not work for him. The “typical” important tools he needs to succeed in the world are difficult for Nishant. Command over language, spoken communication, logical thinking and good interpersonal skills evade him.

As the years passed, questions such as “How will Nishant earn a living? and “How will he be independent in the transactional world?” gave way to “How will we make Nishant sit and listen?” and “How will we teach him to read, write and calculate?” or “How do we make him follow the rules?”. For, he will always find these difficult to do.The answer to these questions lies in finding “How” he is different rather than “Why” he is different.

As renowned psychologist Howard Gardner puts it, “It’s not how smart you are that matters, what really counts is how you are smart.” It also lies in breaking the myth of “independence” and working towards an “interdependence” model and truly believing that there is a lot of value that these children/adults have to offer to this world.

Gardner also put forth the theory of multiple intelligences. He said we all learn in different ways. Some of us learn better by interaction with others. Some prefer reflecting on our own.

Some of us learn by moving our bodies, while some of us are spatial learners. For some, Nature or languages is the teacher.

And then there are those who learn only through logic and analyses. For many more, it is quite simply music that teaches.

But, are we taking into consideration all these differences when we teach our children? Children with Autism who have typically poor inter-personal skills are expected to cope in environments that rely heavily on social cues and established forms of communication i.e. oral and written. They find this difficult to process, and either withdraw into passivity or get frustrated and exhibit what is commonly known as “challenging behaviours”.

Isn’t it time then that we start exploring curricula for children with Autism that uses more space, movement, music and art to engage and captivate these minds where other approaches have failed?

Also, since many children on the spectrum are “holistic thinkers” rather than “sequential –logical” thinkers, wouldn’t a process based curriculum work better than a skill-based one? After all some of our ancestors did not know to read and write but they could cultivate and navigate well enough.

Sensory processing differences in the autistic make them think and perceive the world in a very different way. So we need to build lessons around their “Learning style”. Some of them have additional motor problems and they are unable to write or speak well, but this issue can be solved through technology such as computers and iPads. Navigating the ever-changing scenarios in the “typical world is one of the greatest challenges persons in the spectrum face. They will need a comprehensive curriculum to learn “communication” and “social skills” as well as “life skills”. I realized that Nishant learns better through a process-based approach rather than a pure content based approach. His program factors in his multiple interests in movement, music, art and nature. We use technology as his tool to respond and communicate. Given that his essential nature is to keep moving, a lot of physical activities such as cycling, trekking are included in his schedule, and of late we are into some dancing too. We have switched tracks and are not trying to ride the mainstream bandwagon anymore. We are the hippies of Autism. We are on a journey with him, finding a path, not a destination. We learn as we go, trying to DIScover his ABILTIES and ours.

Akila Vaidyanathan is Founder, Director the Amaze Charitable Trust. and a dedicated mother and Autism warrior. AMAZE was formed with a mission to help families navigate the Autism maze. It works for Autism Awareness and advocacy. It also organises adventure camps in association with NALS Outdoors and runs a technology based intervention program called DAKSH, a Social skills program called ACHINTH and a Mentoring and Empowerment program for Young Adults called AMEYA.

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