Autism-related behaviour is often situation-specific and this behaviour changes as the situation changes.
We can be suddenly faced with a burst of challenging behaviour and parents are left perplexed at this sudden manifestation of unexpected behaviour. As professionals, it is imperative that we observe autistic children to learn why this sudden distressing change in behaviour occurs. This might be because of change in environment, sensory issues, or most important the child's inability to communicate his distress to onlookers because they do not pick up on his signals. We try to change the child's behaviour to fit what we think is an accepted pattern but we need to realise this behaviour of autistic children is linked to a trigger that we need to understand. In such a situation, persisting with imposing accepted standards of behaviour will never work because with autistic children one size does not fit all.
We were planning to celebrate Children's Day with a musical performance for our guests, including the president of the Rotary Club of Calcutta Samaritans. The Samaritans had gifted Alokdhara a few much-needed items and this was to be our gesture of thanks. The students practised every day with their teachers who were very happy with the outcome. On the day, the teachers decorated the stage with shimmering streamers, flowers and balloons. The familiar room turned into a pretty picture from a fairy tale. To their utter surprise, though, three of the students started crying loudly and refused to step out of their classroom. We understood the source of their distress and as soon as we took down the decorations, the children calmed down. We realised the room where the students practised did not look the same to them. Individuals with autism do not react well to sudden changes and prefer sameness. An unfamiliar environment will affect their behaviour and make them defensive.
Some examples of what might be misconstrued as unreasonable behaviour by those not used to dealing with autistic children will help explain this better. A student who comes to me regularly and is quite happy being taught by me came in one day and quite uncharacteristically started stamping his feet and showing his displeasure. No amount of questioning helped and I started wondering what had changed from the day before when I realised a cupboard had been moved in the room. Pushing it back to its original position calmed the student down and he went back to his lessons.
This characteristic of preferring sameness is accompanied by a photographic memory for some autistic children as in this case where the child wanted the cupboard moved to the exact original situation.
Importance of routine
Sampann, 8, is a student of the afternoon session at Alokdhara. One day, I requested his mother to come with the boy to school for the morning session to attend occupational therapy as the therapist comes only in the morning. That morning, the therapist called to say he wouldn't be able to make it. I immediately called up the boy's mother. She was already on her way and Sampann refused to go back home. The sudden change of routine was unacceptable for him.
Arighno, too, likes to follow a structured routine and cannot tolerate any change. He comes to school, opens the wooden gate, sits on the white painted bench meant for waiting parents to sit on. He sits on the bench for a while, then sits next on a green plastic stool to take off his shoes and socks. One day, when he reached school, the green stool was missing. He wouldn't calm down till one of the caregivers brought the plastic stool and placed it near the shoe rack.
My student Korak, now 42, is a gifted sitar player, can travel by train to and from Amritsar and Calcutta. But he refused to dress in anything other than white cotton pyjama and a black kurta, both bought from a particular shop in Gariahat.
Our goal should be to create awareness so that people can look at disability with more understanding and spare persons with autism from distress. Persons above 30 were not exposed to any training. They were deprived of early intervention and training. By the time parents and doctors realised the behaviour of their autistic children they had already reached middle age.
The present generation of children with autism are fortunate enough to receive early intervention or training in schools and therapy centres.
Role of teachers
School teachers need to be more careful. Before the student goes into his or her new class, arrangement should be made available to him or her to spend some time of the day in the new classroom situation. He or she should be helped to become familiar with the new environment, new teachers and friends before she goes into her new environment.
A lot of intervention focuses on changing the child to fit our framework of how children should behave. To support and care, we need to observe the person and eliminate the probable causes from the environment. It is important to survey the situation.
WORLD AUTISM AWARENESS DAY
Children take part in a torchlight walk down Metro Channel a day ahead of World Autism Awareness Day
Balloons being released to flag off a programme presented by the office of the commissioner
for persons with disabilities, under the department of women and child development, and the social welfare directorate on Thursday. Shashi Panja (above), the women and child development and social welfare minister, and Mita Banerjee, the disability commissioner of Bengal, were
present on the occasion. The programme began with the kids releasing some
blue-and-white balloons to herald a new inclusive world
Students of the morning section of Alokdhara perform Rosogolla Dance at a cultural programme at Rabindra Sadan. The afternoon students and teachers presented a fusion number that saw them using colourful cloth as props. Children from Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy, Mentaid and Pradip: Centre for Autism also danced, sang and staged skits
Avishek Sarker browses his own paintings at an art exhibition, in association with ITC Sonar, on World Autism Awareness Day. The 22-year-old, who is autistic, started painting when he was around five. “Initially, his subjects were things that scared him, such as pumps and lifts, but gradually he started drawing objects he liked,” said Avishek’s mother, Soma Sarker.
Rosemarie E-Hille, the German deputy consul general in Calcutta, felt “honoured and humbled” to be a part of the evening, while artist and chief guest Wasim Kapoor found his works “mindblowing”. “Avishek’s eye for detail is evident in his drawings. Instead of imposing rules on people like him, we need to encourage them to be the way they are. It is difficult for them to navigate in a world where we ourselves don’t follow social rules,” said Indrani Basu, the secretary of Autistic Society West Bengal, which presented the exhibition.
Pictures by Sayantan Ghosh and Arnab Mondal
The writer is principal, Alokdhara Inclusive Montessori School & Adult Skill Training Centre, and president, Parent Circle Time Autism Identified