There are many times in one’s life when they are humbled and made to realise how lucky and how thankful they should be. I had one such moment last Wednesday when I decided to help my 2nd sister out. My 2nd sister is a teacher at a Special Needs school which looks towards caring for children with Autism. I meant to write this entry sooner but with 4 deadlines looming closer, I had to put my dear blog aside for awhile.
I don’t know very much of autistic children and all these other sites make it very medical so I thought, for whoever who actually still bothers reading this, I should explain autism in lay terms. Autism is a brain development disorder. Most people usually mistake it with down syndrome – but unlike down syndrome, autistic kids look very normal and their problems are mainly impairments in communication or behavior. I will explain this problem further when I relate my experience later. No one really knows how these kids becomes autistic and a clear cause is not really figured out and the only thing we really know is that its probably got to do with genes.
But, there are lots of autistic people who make it in life and who go on to lead rather normal lives with slight dysfunctions. Autism is really a behavioral issue but I simply cannot understand why some people out there make it out to be some kind of a disease.
Anyhow, my 2nd sister asked me to help her as she was bringing 8 of her kids to Little India as part of a Deepavali trip. Theirs was a recce trip to see if the kids would be able to tolerate such long hours in the sweltering sun and whether they would act up during the travel time in the MRT. These trips are usually organised to try to get the kids used to taking public transport and stuff so that they wouldn’t have difficulties later on when they leave the school and will be more likely to integrate better into mainstream society.
Anyhow, I decided to follow her since I wasn’t doing much bumming at home since I didn’t have dance class this week. I had to wake up at bloody 6.30 am but I guess at the end of the day it all felt really worth it. My sister is moving to mainstream teaching next year so this was my only chance to actually get to see these kids.
I kept my sister company while she took the temperature of all the kids who were coming into school. Since these kids are a little more difficult and very dependent on a very structured life, they take their temperatures everyday because they wouldn’t want them to be unprepared and acting up in times of emergency. There are about 30-40 kids maximum in this school so they know all the kids by name and it was really an interesting experience watching each kid come in with his/her little personality.
Some of the kids were so mischievous, trying to run out the moment the bus stopped, others sat on the floor and refused to get up(one as old as 15), a few hated the feeling of the thermometer in their ears, some repeated words to themselves, quite a few who were termed “highly functioning” would greet but they would insist on greeting every single teacher and must receive a greeting back, some however couldn’t even talk. Whatever it is, they all possessed things some of us can only dream of having – great energy, chirpiness and this certain thing I can’t quite put my finger on – some sort of a zest for life.
After that I sat in for my sister’s class since we were only leaving at 10 and there was this one boy from India – he was really adorable and my sister asked him, “Pallu Engey Poithu Anand?” (where did your tooth go, Anand?) and he replies excitedly “Vizhunthuthu!”(fall down!) And he kept coming to me and whispering something and running away. They are really amazing because they can sit and do one task for so long. When they focus, they really do focus. It was so exciting seeing them sing nursery rhymes though the words were garbled, they tried their levels to do all the actions. What saddened me was later when I realised that all these kids were probably the age of my youngest cousin who is currently in Primary 2 and they have difficulties grasping what he did when he was in pre-school.
It was heartwrenching to see children who have so much of a desire to learn be bound and punished for something that isn’t even their fault. But one thing is for sure, in their innocence lies this great beauty that none of us would ever have.
The trip to Tekka was not an easy one as one of the other boys from my sister’s colleague’s class started acting up. He banged the seats, the windows and kept repeating the “door closing” in a shrill voice. People kept staring in disapproval and I really don’t blame them because these kids look so normal that they probably thought we were inefficient teachers unable to keep such a big boy calm. I guess that is the problem then, that they are perceived to be normal and simply brats when in fact they are acting up because they have no other way of expressing their dislike of a certain action or sound. Even the slightest sound can irritate them as they are highly sensitive to such things. It was so sad to see them and I felt like screaming at all these people who were looking on and telling them to use their brains to realise this wasn’t a normal kid, but I realised that I couldn’t blame them because if I hadn’t known better , I might have done that too.
While on the train, my sister received sad news of another boy who was from the previous Special School she was teaching at. His mum had kept in the room as a “time-out” because he had been doing some naughty things. This is a punishment that they use on these kids to show them that their behaviour is wrong and they are given time to reflect and also to digest that their actions were not acceptable. What the mother hadn’t realised though was that the grill was open, he tried to escape the room and passed away. It was heartbreaking to hear this and my heart really goes out to the mother because she’d never be able to deal with such guilt. For my sister and other teachers, hearing stories of such accidents has become fairly normal.
The trip in Tekka overall was a short one but guess what the kids had most fun doing? Eating thosai! All we had to do was put the various dips in the centre and pinch(I am so tempted to use the word “pichu” here) off the thosai into small portions and they were so happily eating it. It was really the highlight for me to see them having such fun and they were so clever. All we had to do was dip one portion into the sambar and the next minute, they experimented with the other dips. One of the boys was imitating how he uses a fork and even that brought a smile to the teacher’s face.
It’s these little things and gestures that we all take for granted. That we can eat normally, talk normally and lead such normal lifestyles. That we can lift our hands and when we talk our words aren’t garbled, that when we are upset we can express it with the right emotions. Never in my life did I feel that thankful.
There was one lady next to me though who was staring at the kids eating the thosai. She asked me then if they are normal and I explained to her that they aren’t. They asked me what autism means so I told my sister to explain instead since I’m not the topic expert. After knowing, the lady still went on to me about how her granddaughter who is 2 years old can eat on her own unlike these kids. I’m sorry but which part of intellectually disabled did she not understand????
And then there were the usual suspects in Tekka. I hate to point it out but they always manage to step on my toes with their behaviour. This time, I cannot understand why its so hard to give way when you see little kids walking! Why do they have to be so insistent that they have to push through even little kids and nearly knock them down. That few seconds you spend giving way isn’t going to make you miss your daughter’s wedding and the baby shower 2 years later. (K bad analogy but you get what I mean).
Nevertheless, I learnt so much from these children. That I am so lucky and that I have a lot of things to be glad for. I felt very upset with God and wondered why he had to put these kids through such trauma. Then I realised that God loves them more than the rest of us and that’s why he made them into special angels to show the rest of us the true meaning of life. I urge you guys to try to volunteer with these kids or in fact in any of the other Special Schools. My sister’s school is organising a Deepavali concert so if any of you who read this are interested in helping out in some way or another please do let me know.
Hats off to the parents and wonderful teachers and staff who work at such schools and who go to such extents to make sure that these kids too get a shot at life and they manage to do this work with a fair amount of attachment and yet manage to make sure the cases remain detached from the rest of their lives. I know I would never be able to do that since I’d be so disillusioned with how these kids have been dealt out an unfair card to life. Thank you for doing what you do and making sure that they are treated rightfully too.
I really do hope you guys at some point in time have such a humbling experience too.