“Aapne apne bache ko kuch nahi sikhaya kya (Haven’t you taught your kid anything)?” Questions like these are not uncommon for Sneh Devgan, mother of a 16-year-old boy suffering from autism.
Devgan, a special educator herself, rues the lack of awareness among people when it comes to this developmental disorder. “Hardly anyone knows or understands autism. My son Kushal is like any other normal child; it’s just that the definition of normal is different in his case. Such children only need love and acceptance, and unfortunately our society is unable to provide it,” she says.
As the world observes the autism awareness day on April 2, parents and special educators have the same problem to share: lack of acceptance.
Geeta Bajaj, the head of the special cell at Bhavan Vidyalaya, says it’s not just society, but parents too, who refuse to accept and fully understand autism.
“Many parents come to us and try to downplay the level of autism in their child. People need to shed discomfort associated with autism and understand that we are all in this together,” says Bajaj, who has 26 years of experience in the field.
“Not many people know that once a child with autism learns to perform a task, he or she can do it over and over again in a perfect manner,” she says. The tasks can vary from embroidery and needle work to block printing and weighing and packing of material, all of which are performed by children with autism at the school’s special cell.
“Many myths surrounding autism hinder awareness,” says Sangeeta Jain, who routinely deals with horrid stares and has even been told to keep her child at home when she ventures out with 16-year-old Suvrat. Her autistic son has also been called a thief, among other things, when he happened to snatch a packet of potato wafers at a store.
Jain, who is also the vice-principal of the institute run by the Society for Rehabilitation of Mentally Challenged (SOREM), says many people who claim to be “okay” around children with autism are in fact pretending and act awkwardly when put in such a situation.
Although the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act provides for education of children with special needs along with other children, several parents also complain that they have to almost beg to get their autistic child admitted to school. In fact, the Central Board of Secondary Education has made it mandatory for all schools to appoint a special educator to ensure inclusion of such children.
“Children with autism live in a different world than the one we live in. Bringing them to our world is not easy, but we all need to take a few steps forward in this direction, says Geeta Bajaj.