Autism is a life-long condition and the mere passing of age does not really remove the difficulties. In fact, as children become teenagers, they are hit by their hormones, their OCDs become more rigid, new behaviors emerge due to low cognition and communication, many teens develop allergies and or seizures, many become obese, many crave for attention from the opposite sex, most are on medication and many struggle with anxiety disorder due to the growing chaos around them. It is not uncommon to see teens with Autism struggling during this phase and lose confidence because they are not able to understand or meet expectations and are always feeling rejected or confused. Many lose motivation to perform because by then, the environment in multiple ways reinforces that they have a problematic mind. They are torn from within because of the changes and their own inability to find a balance between themselves and the environment. What one tends to forget is that the developmental issues not only tend to exaggerate in the teenage years but in some cases can completely go out of control. These combination of problems make it very difficult for many spaces to provide solutions for these individuals. It is challenging to even understand how to bring such a group together under one roof to enable vocational skilling that is suited to their needs. Many vocational training schools in India are either working with basic monotonous processes which are aided as they are not equipped to manage the multiple challenges Autism throws at them. But does that mean this mind can't be trained with a high-end skill? No! At SK, this is where we are a game-changer. We started the first art school for Autism in India bearing in mind that those inclined to the arts on the spectrum could very well be trained to achieve extra-ordinary heights of succession. The art school at SK works with anyone over the age of 12 and was created to help build skills within the arts. The intention here is to build professional artists. The art school trains the children in the following areas – drawing and painting, sculpture, pottery, theatre, animation, design, print and the culinary arts. We have 42 plus subjects purely inspired by the arts. As stated by Julia Kellman, "Unlike non-autistic artists whose vision becomes shaded by the confusions of conceptual thinking at the very instant that they recognise an object, artist with autism are likely afforded a clearer view of the visual world because of their less intrusive ability to conceptualize. And it is this 'unconceptualized view of the world' that we hope to present from SK.
In India, the second area of major concern for Autism is in the skilling space. We are faced with a horde of teenagers, most of them functioning at the level of a 6 to 8-year-old with regards to their cognitive, emotional and communication skills. Once, they enter into their teenage years, they experience many changes within their own bodies and minds. They are confused and lost due to the environmental changes which are caused when an environment that responded in a particular way when they were children, starts to respond very differently to the same actions displayed as the teen. Primarily, because the individual is not equipped with the necessary comprehension to understand the change, he is then feeling lost and mostly alienated in the very environment that he grew up in. These combinations of problems make it very difficult for many spaces to provide solutions for these individuals. It is challenging to even understand how to bring such a group together under one roof to enable vocational skilling that is suited to their needs. Acknowledging this gap, at SK, we strived to break these barriers by starting the first art school for autism in this country. We took it up as a challenge and worked intensively with many teens on the spectrum and devised a unique arts curriculum to ensure that irrespective of where they were cognitively, they could pick up the necessary skills to further their interests in the arts. We focused on building effective classroom structure and management techniques, devising a structured arts curriculum, the very first of it’s kind in India, defined teaching methodologies too and made way for the students to become teachers in sessions to validate the effectiveness of such a curriculum and methodology. This has led us to the design of the very first arts curriculum in India which we believe will be a game-changer in the space of disability and may open doors to teach not just autism but very many of those with disabilities who wish to pursue the arts.
At SK, the teenager is the center of all our programs. Our philosophy in the vocational space was to create avenues that would be in sync with the strengths of the individual with autism. Research has proven that people on the spectrum are drawn towards the creative arts to productively manage their sensory sensitivities and also reduce anxiety. Many like Donna Williams, Stephen Wiltshire, Jonathan Lerman, Peter Howson, Nadia Chomyn, Henriett Seth F., Gilles Trehin and many more have proved the mettle of the arts in their personal journeys. This art school was founded on three fundamental principles, one that this mind, if inclined to the arts, would be capable of learning skills that could astound everyone only because it would be self-driven. Thus, motivation, which is one of the most essential elements for any vocational education to succeed would be harnessed effectively. The second element we ardently follow and believe in is using the obsessive thoughts and patterns of this mind to explore themes for the works of art created by each individual and this has been the ace of this deal. It enables the individual to work hard and focus singularly to pick up advanced skills along with giving their obsessions a productive pathway which ensures that these obsessions now can trigger cognitive, emotional and social developments. The third element which is also the most essential element of this design is the autism specific arts curriculum which has more than 42 subjects and each lesson plan is designed to meet the skilling needs to train an individual to become a professional artist. This curriculum design has also led to the making of specialized tools like the disability ruler kit (copyrighted to Ayathi) that provides better access to pick up complex skills. This curriculum is designed to ensure that the student is able to explore, engage and experiment with a wide range of media, techniques and materials which helps them build up to 3 primary skill areas within the arts. The entire program can take anywhere in between 6 to 8 years for an individual with autism to graduate from considering they are involved only in the teaching process at SK and are not part of the merchandising, branding and or gallery engagements coordinated by Blue Olephant.
The teenage years cause many changes within the bodies and minds of an individual with autism. The teen with autism is hit by many other problems like seizures, peaking of addictions like gaming, obsessive-compulsive patterns, self-talk, and mental illnesses like depression, bi-polar etc which all deter the daily functioning of the individual. Primarily, because the individual is not equipped with the necessary comprehension to survive, he is then feeling lost and mostly alienated in the very environment that he grew up in. These gaps of comprehension lead to meltdowns, exhibition of aggressive & wrong social behaviors along with the continuous need to be involved in stimming mechanisms to remain calm. The teen's body starts to experience more sensory sensitivities along with the kicking in of maturing sexuality. At SK, we believe that allowing the teenager to find other avenues of expressing oneself along with structured behaviour sessions, consistent behaviour modification techniques, specialized behavior management & a strong parent - teacher collaboration are key to tackling behaviours which can be sustained throughout life. First, we understand the teen and start to work with his interests so we can build motivation towards multiple other activities, thus, aiming to expand the neural pathways. An idle mind especially in the case of autism tends to stim more which only leads to more anxiety, seizures and regression of skills. Next, we engage them with new methods and materials thus providing an outlet for their sensory needs and also creating a space that helps them become calmer and sync in with the environment. We ensure that the teen is always involved in a productive task and structure his day effectively so all anxieties related to time and space are ruled out. We ensure that the teen is engaged in activities of his liking so that motivation to perform is self-driven which will in turn result in high-confidence and gratification at the end of the task thus, enabling the making of a happy mind. We encourage communication and start teaching varied ways to communicate by building buddy groups with other teens who have autism too and help them find solutions by talking, observing and sharing with each other. We encourage communication which helps the environment understand when to stop and back away so the individual with autism can step away and take some time off to calm down and refocus all his energies towards a calmer mind. We do sensory based play and creative exercises to improve social relationships, communication and manage sensory sensitivities. Based on each individual, a customized behavior modification plan is designed which uses a mix of conditioning techniques, consistent work in all environments, creation of multiple coping mechanisms, counseling for both parent and child and the use of psycho-therapeutic approaches along with diet advice, support with Ayurveda or homeopathy and spiritual practices too. We have many collaborators who work with the community to help with behaviors for the children and the most results have been seen when a parent is receptive and engaged actively to help resolve situations.