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Educating Autistic Children

Sankalp is a “Special Needs School” where education and occupational therapy are interwoven to help children with communicating and learning difficulties overcome these. The founders of Sankalp share their views on the type of educational intervention and parental support required.

Approach to Education
Parental Attitudes and Support
The future and Mainstreaming

At Sankalp you work with children with Autism, Asperger’s and Learning Disability. As far as autistic children go, what is your approach?

The Sankalp Team: Autism is a developmental disability affecting social interaction, communication and imaginative play. Children display stereotypical behaviour, interests and activities. This disability adversely affects education.
Our school tries to be different from the “ factory schools” of our times.
We trust the inner workings of every mind. We honour each learner with respect and dignity, as each one had a different style and pace of learning.
Our goal is to create an environment where the child will learn to be independent, productive and lead a meaningful life even with the limitations imposed by his/her disability.

At what age does the intervention begin?

The earlier the better. Although we work with kids around three years of age, we also accept children who are a little younger than three.

Is there a Screening Test?

An initial screening and a comprehensive psycho-educational assessment is made.
An Individualised Education Program (IEP) is designed to suit the child on the basis of the assessment and goals are set accordingly.

What does the Education Program Incorporate?

Academics and life skills are taught in a manner which the child understands.
Our programme incorporates the following:

Skills for Coping with the Environment: We work on developing cognitive skills, self help skills and social skills. In autism, the skills that particularly need attention are the social and communicative skills.

Occupational Therapy: We provide Sensory Integration Therapy. This includes play/activities that enhance comprehension of touch, movement and of body position, areas that are often problematic in Autistic children. Auditory sensitivity, or the way they respond to sound, is also different in Autistic children.

Academics: With occupational therapy, Autistic children are able to settle down a bit. They are less distracted by their sensory deficits and able to pay more attention in the classroom. They are taught math, general knowledge, language skills and extracurricular activities such as dancing and yoga.

What is the teaching methodology you adopt?

Teaching happens in an individualised but structured fashion. Readiness testing is the first thing we do. Preschool skills such as sorting, shapes, gross motor and fine motor skills are reviewed.
Concessions are made on learning the sensory deficits of the children. For instance the checks in the uniform trigger an exaggerated response of fear in one of our children; One child is allowed to wear pants instead of skirts, as the sensory stimulus of her thighs rubbing against each other is too annoying for the child.

Autistic children often have problems with structuring and sequencing:

As the children who come to us are very young, we help them with:

  • Following simple instructions. (Delivered in a sing song intonation, if necessary)

  • Encouraging non verbal communication.

  • Vocalising. (Some children have good receptive language, only a problem with expressive language.)

Does the fact that children come from different vernacular backgrounds interfere with their understanding/adaptation. Languages and dialects can act as barrier with kids who anyway have a problem in communicating. In general, it is believed that a single language approach works with autistic children.
For instance, if one person says “slippers” and another “chappal”, it can confuse the child and make it more difficult for him to respond.
Here we have developed a simple vocabulary for kids that everyone follows while communicating with them: Ayahs, teachers, parents and other helpers.

What is the kind of parental participation do you need?

We need parents to understand that autism can at best be managed with collaborative effort and that they need to work with the children, along with the teachers, to get the best results.

Does this happen?

Not always.
Accepting, understanding and helping a child with disability requires effort that borders on the heroic, even for a parent.
We understand that parents come from different kinds of family set ups. They are often under guilt trips, under pressures from family or peers, or under stress because they are hard pressed for time/energy that an autistic child can demand.
The school often serves as a place, (often the only place) where they can leave their child to get some respite.
However, to think that the school can handle everything, or work wonders on their children , becomes tough for the school.
The relief that a school is willing to take their child and promises to work on the disability quickly converts into hope that there will be a drastic change in the child and in the absence of which disappointment ensues in the parent.

Is there a pattern to the level of motivation parents have?

As far as eagerness in identifying the problem and looking for help goes, middle class parents work faster. The upper middle class are a trifle laid back in accepting the disability and taking remedial steps.

Beyond this there are no patterns. Some mothers/parents are more motivated towards understanding the child’s problem and coping with it faster than others. This does not depend on the economic, social or educational background of the parent. Sooner parents get practical with this, the happier the environment they create is.

Do you also counsel parents?

We have awareness programmes for parents and teachers.
We have monthly feedback sessions for parents, so that we can discuss their wards.
Parents also bond as an informal support group when they come here. It helps to know there are other people with similar concerns. They mature as a group.

What are some of the basic expectations of your school from parents of kids with Autism?

Two of the basic concerns of parents with autistic children and our position regarding these are:

Can my child go to a regular school?

Sankalp’s Position: It depends on the level of difficulty the child is experiencing. The option of National Open School is often more practical and attractive for these children.

What will the future of my child be like?

Sankalp’s Position: We try to tell the parents not to compare the children with normal children. Autistic children with higher function are able to acquire academic skills. They can find a place in work and adult environments, though in a sheltered way.

Have you tried mainstreaming children with Autism? After all, the goal of all schools that work with disabilities should be to help their wards overcome/manage the disability, be independent and participate in the community.

We have tried. We feel atleast in the early years, autistic kids can benefit from being with normal kids. Peer activity can encourage communication and social skills. This is likely to happen when they are interacting with normal kids, rather than other kids with similar problems.
We have not been successful in getting the two groups together. We feel that our society is not ready for this yet.
We ran a preschool where we took in autistic as well as normal children. In a few years we got fewer and fewer normal children. Normal kids who came to us, said parents, were looked on with suspicion by peers. “ Why does your child go to that school?” The unspoken line being “ Does he/she have a problem?” So we decided to support disabled children and made Sankalp a Special School.
Even our kids’ parents are sometimes are not convinced enough to take up Autism as a cause.
We had a rally for Autism Awareness. Parents were not all too willing to march with placards to further this. ‘Should the community be sensitised? And should we be the one to sensitise it?’ were some of the questions that they raised.

But there is still a little hope. We are talking to some schools who may take in some children at a suitable stage.

More about Sankalp

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