02 April 2011
By Anoop Jaipurkar
The Need To Sensitise Teachers, Doctors and People In General Remains A Foremost Concern
His worried mother, Swapna, took him to more than 15 padeatricians in the city but they proved to be of little help. Most were unable to tell what was wrong with Sreyansh and others called him ‘mentally retarted’. "We were completely aghast," says Swapna. "I knew for sure that Shreyansh is not mentally challenged. It was only after we visited Ummeed Child Development Centre in Mumbai that we learnt that my child was autistic."
Despite a growing general awareness about autism, a brain disorder that affects a person's ability to form relationships and behave normally in everyday life, parents of young children with autism find it increasingly difficult to get the help they need.
The Shetty family’s experience with schooling has not been much better. "Shreyansh was admitted to a nearby pre-primary school (kindergarten). But the teachers complained that he did not sit with the other children," says Swapna. "They gave up in just six days. I told them I was willing to sit in the class to handle Shreyansh, but they did not relent. So, my son was removed from a normal school."
Sunita Lele, a special educator, says, "Under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, every child is guaranteed the right to education. How can a kindergarten, which is focused on developing children’s social skills, refuse to let an autistic child sit with others?"
Admitting Shreyansh to a special school (a school meant for children who have special educational needs due to learning difficulties or behavioral problems) did not help either. "One of the teachers complained that she tried to hold Shreyansh’s hand and make him write from 1 to 10, but he did not co-operate," said Shetty.
"Since autism is a spectrum disorder, each case is different from the other. Teachers in special schools definitely have a task at hand. So, to meet this demand for constant attention by autistic children, retired teachers and even mothers of affected children can be trained as shadow teachers. This is definitely a better option that having one teacher for 20 students," said Lele.
Having said that, the need to sensitise teachers, doctors and people in general remains a foremost concern. "It’s true that not many paediatrics are equipped to handle such cases primarily, because most of them, during their PG studies, did not opt for developmental paediatrics. And, study in other aspects of child care does not give the doctors adequate exposure to disorders like autism. Doctors, including general physicians, should attend seminars and support group meetings to update their knowledge," says Sharad Agarkhedkar, paediatrician and past president of the Indian Medical Association, Pune.
Shobhana Shrivastav, who has an 18-year-old autistic child, says, "The parents of many autistic children are not comfortable taking their kids to public places, fearing people’s reactions. The general public should have a more humane outlook when they approach us about what’s wrong with our kids."
Most importantly, society needs to change its mindset. "No two people are alike so why should one expect or force an autistic person to behave in the ‘normal’ way, asks Poonam Natrajan, chairman of the National Trust for the welfare of persons with Autism, cerebral Palsy, mental retardation and multiple disabilities. "Accept their diversity and you will be able to channelise their energies in a better way," she adds.
The government’s approach also needs to undergo a drastic change. "The education of autistic children falls in the category of social welfare department. If education for a normal child is his fundamental right, why can’t the same parameter apply to an autistic child? They need our attention, not charity," concludes Lele.