AUTISM IN CORONA TIMES: PART 01

ONE MAN’s MEAT IS ANOTHER MAN’s POISON!

Autism in Corona's Times: Part 01

No frills, no fancies, straight to business. Today, I want to spotlight – “NO ONLINE EDUCATION FOR CHILDREN!”


Well, this definitely sits very well with the values of pre-corona times and I shall accept that there is a great deal of research that will support this perspective. Most of the findings, I constantly re-visit myself as a professional, to help parents of teens with autism understand how to manage this new gen of digital kids more effectively. Pre-Corona times, extensive research led to elaborate and significant findings which established that looking at screens for hours a day can have some serious health and mental health consequences. I am only revisiting those findings so we can unearth what we have now potentially revoked. One finding stated that the brain chemistry of kids who fell into the category of smartphone or internet addiction was different from that of non-addicted kids. Research reported that cells in one of the reward areas of the brain were activated when participants view Instagram pictures with more “likes," which suggests that social media use can tap into addiction pathways.


Researcher Jean Twenge’s famous work has shown strong links between time spent on screens and depression and suicidality in teens. Teens who spent more time on screens in the form of social media, internet, texting, and gaming thought about suicide a lot more than kids who didn’t; about 48% of those who spent five or more hours a day on their phones had thought about suicide or made plans for it, while only 28% of the teens who spent only one hour per day on their phones thought about suicide. In fact, teens who spent more time doing sports, homework, socializing with friends in real life, and going to social gatherings had a lower risk for both depression and suicide.


Having stated the above, the government’s mandate definitely seems like the right way ahead. If my analysis is accurate, I believe the government is expecting parents to develop a bond with their children and find new ways to connect, learn and grow mutually. I was hoping that this lock down had freed them up to explore much more than a TV show or a footy game. I guess the crucial question is if this really happen? Bearing in mind the usual norm, it has been noted that parents who are stimulated by tasks like engineering, politics and stand-ups cannot connect with a child as a child. It takes effort to redefine oneself to see wonder in things that do not spark wonder anymore. I have rarely seen parents cook a meal with the kid, spin a story to explore new worlds, share their personal experiences of vulnerability or even play a dedicated game to help them develop a skill. It’s not obsolete, but yes it is rare. I guess that is probably what the govt. is hoping for when they say ‘no online support’.


But let us all be honest and ask ourselves – how many adults are actually really stimulated by such activities? And let’s not forget that many still need to work to keep the families going. So then what happens to the child? Now a NT will probably find a way, and I do not mean to be insensitive to the fact that NT kids struggle quite a bit too. But when I turn the dial and peer in to see what happen to kids on the spectrum then - here is a whole new space and trust me, it comes with many more challenges along with concerns that one may never have imagined. But, and yes there is a but! I work with autism in India and I understand the reality of this space. I provide solutions in a space and in a way that has not been thought of ever in India. Hence, my core focus is autism and the consequences such a policy decision can have on this community are immense and something I would like to shed light on.


To begin with, we are the first ever 2E school for autism in India. A 2E school is one which caters to students with learning and thinking differences who have outstanding skills in certain academic or art areas. These kids are often called "twice-exceptional" or 2E learners. They’re exceptional in two ways. They’re gifted, and they have learning differences. We use technology coupled with an autism specific curriculum which is implemented within savvy smart classrooms with students who use laptops from grade 1 along with other gadgets to enhance their cognitive, social and communication skills.


We do not shy away from technology and we couple that with a sensory enabled art program that helps us bring a balance between the digital and sensorial learning interfaces so we can give the best of both worlds to our children. In my view, technology by itself is neither good nor bad. Rather, as we shall see, the uses and limits of technology, which we should be teaching our children, are what determine whether it has a good or bad effect on society. It is not our children’s fault if we, their parents and teachers have failed to teach them how to balance screen time use. But then again, maybe it is so because we are the first generation having to teach this stuff, and we just don’t have any role models from past generations to guide us. Having said that, should we not atleast attempt to let the children lead us as our teachers? Well, that is exactly what we have done and yes, we have seen a rather embracing impact in this process. It has not been a rosy road but it definitely has had it’s high points.


So, reverting to the question of why is online education necessary for autism and how this policy is really not a solution? Let’s start from the beginning to answer this question. When schools closed in march, all of the students from our school who accepted that corona is dangerous based on the social stories we narrated went under lock-down. As we know with autism, a date was to be given so they knew when they could return to school. This date shifted from “May to June to now we are not sure” – which is an answer autism refuses to accept. Through March and April we were not even able to provide any support as it took a good 3 months to run trials and understand how we could move our learning online. If anyone ever heard me speaking of teaching kids on the spectrum online, they would laugh – but that was the case pre-corona times. Now, a different reality peers at us. Anyhow, this element of uncertainty is what we all try and avoid for autism. It creates immense amount of stress and also leads the students into an unpredictable zone – which is where no one with autism wants to be. And that is what we have done! We have successfully blind-folded our sensorially challenged children, stuck them on the edge of a cliff and said, sit here, stay still, do not move – else you could die. I fail to understand how this is acceptable?


We are at the brink of a pandemic that has no immediate solutions, we are asking everyone to build their immunities but what are we doing with our vulnerable children on the spectrum? We have pulled out structure, we have hampered their routines, we have introduced unpredictability, we have resorted to medicating them and all of this pulls their immunity down and makes them more vulnerable. We have also forced many of those kids who are battling autism and mental illnesses to be under lock down and deal with their challenges without providing any support at all. And what did we see? We saw our teens falling apart and calling us desperately to find out when school was going to open, we saw one teen attempt to run away from his house, we saw another teen have a meltdown when we were testing our online teaching model because the internet connection was failing during his online session, we saw teens fight more with their parents because life was not the same and they did not know how else to express their frustrations.


While I saw things crumbling - I asked myself – What are we doing about all this? Why should we not do online sessions? Are our students really mismanaging technology? Do my students not deserve the support to get through these dark times? And when I got an answer from within, I decided to challenge the policy. This policy definitely made sense if it was utopia, and in utopia we had the possibility of creating connections which create learning like in Steiner’s model or in Krishnamurti’s philosophies. But I saw nothing of that happening, so then I decided that we would step in.


As a professional I took an oath to do all that I could to help my students and if the government defines a policy that disables us completely from providing support then how can this be right? Again, the model of no online sessions may do wonders for some especially those who have active parents who would love to engage and help their children learn. But that is not necessarily the case for everyone as I have clearly illustrated. One man’s food is another man’s poison. Did we forget that? We at SK, are running online sessions and supporting our kids maintain a routine, build a structure and not feel jailed or further anxious. We are walking into their homes through the zoom and teams sessions to enable functioning and also provide constant counseling to provide emotional support so they can cope better with their stress. We are delivering on the promise of being there for them and with them through these dark times. We highly recommend that all professionals in these special areas do the same. We owe it to our kids and to those parents who believe in us!

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