Learning not lost

Sania Antony has been busy the past few weeks, painting on dry twigs and leaves. Though she misses her friends at school, she gets to interact with her teacher over the phone and that keeps her spirits up. Sania is 22 and has intellectual disability. Studying at the vocational unit of Raksha Special School in Kochi, she has not yet grasped the concept of the lockdown. Her mother involves her in household chores, assigning small tasks such as folding clothes or peeling garlic and that keeps her occupied.

Out of routine

For people with intellectual disabilities and developmental disorders, whose lives are largely governed by routine, the new normal has been especially hard. Not being able to attend their daily therapy — physio, vocational, sensory or language — due to COVID-imposed restrictions, people with special needs have been struggling with managing movement and emotions.

“The comfort and predictability of routine gives those with autism a sense of control,” says Merry Barua, founder-director of Action For Autism (AFA), a centre based in Delhi that works for the rights of individuals with autism and their families. “It is not just their routine that is affected now. Even those around them are confined to the house, and this confuses them,” she says.

Vocational centres and special schools, however, have taken the challenge head on. Using technology-based interventions, they are reaching out to their students and parents. Chat groups, webinars and interactive online whiteboards have become the new norm.

Tech takes

AFA started online classes and Barua says she is surprised at how well the students have taken to it. “However, we advise parents to give their child a visually clear schedule for the day, which would make the situation easier and help them cope better.”

Smrithi Special School in Kochi, which caters to children with intellectual disabilities, started online classes much ahead of the Government’s call for a lockdown. WhatsApp groups were formed through which teachers gave out activities pertaining to art and craft, so that parents would not have to think up something new every day. One group would have six to eight students and one teacher.

“When there’s a sudden disruption in their routine, they become anxious. A number of parents would call in during the initial days and report aggressive behaviour by their wards,” says Padmini Hariharan, the principal of Smrithi. However, as days went by, the teachers drew up a schedule and called the students at a specified time every day. “Each teacher is asked to give a report about the day’s work, so we can assess the child’s progress,” she adds.

Looking ahead
  • The Kerala Government’s Samagra Shiksha Kerala (SSK), a comprehensive programme for the development of school education, has launched a digital curriculum for children with cerebral palsy, autism, hearing impairment, visual impairment, intellectual disability and learning disability. Made available through Telegram and WhatsApp, children can access the study material with help from parents. The study material is predominantly in Malayalam.

Adarsh Rehabilitation School, Punarjeeva Technology Solutions and TCS together have launched Parigyan, a ‘school at home’ initiative, which reaches out to over 500 children in Kochi with cerebral palsy (CP), mental retardation (MR) and various other developmental disorders through live sessions and Jamboard (Google’s collaborative digital white board). The programme offers physiotherapy sessions using artificial intelligence and augmented reality-based fine motor therapy, which can be used as rough guides.

The platform, says Robin Tommy, Head, TCS Incubation Rapid Labs, enables continual learning and improvement of cerebral, cognitive and movement capability. “We recreated existing algorithms, customised for children with special needs,” says Robin. These tutorials are backed by voice and music to make it interesting.

Parental pressure

In all of these measures, the parent or the caregiver plays a vital role, says Girija Nath Menon, executive secretary of Raksha Society, adding that an orientation session was organised for parents. .

“I believe, we just have to rise up to the challenge, whatever it is and over the years, we have grown used to the challenges,” says Rajitha Ullas, mother of 29-year-old Indu, who has autism. Indu used to go to her vocational centre before COVID-19 hit, and now helps her mother with household chores. “She misses going to the centre, but I can see that she has adapted well. She has even adjusted well to wearing a mask,” says Rajitha.

Another major concern for parents is the specialised treatment their children need. “A sudden stop in physio, sensory integration, and occupational therapies could lead to emotional stress,” says Anas K, who is a neurophysiotherapist and managing partner of Moveaze, a physiotherapy and rehabilitation centre in Kozhikode, which has launched online physiotherapy sessions. “Most people with intellectual disability need some kind of therapy and the lack of it can lead to tightening and weakness of the muscles and joint stiffness.” Anas also points out that it is not safe to blindly follow a routine from the Internet, as each individual has a specific need. It best to consult with the person’s existing therapist.

It is about constantly pushing the boundaries, says special educator Shruti Arora, from Moradabad, who specialises in autism spectrum condition. “It is extremely demanding for most parents as they have to juggle household chores and jobs. How each family adjusts to the situation is different. However, they seem to have settled into a beautiful new routine,” she says.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2021 6:29:53 PM |

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