THE STIGMA DIARIES: HOW WE ARE SABOTAGING AUTISM?


Policies worldwide state that if you do not provide an education to a child that helps a child pick up the necessary skills, then it is the abolishment of a basic human right. All children love to learn and that does not change whether you belong to the spectrum or not. An autistic student of mine always tells me expressly – “I am happy with you because you teach me new things about this world.” It is probably the best compliment I have received. If anyone thought that children with autism must not learn, cannot learn, do not need to learn or find it treacherous to learn and eventually gain nothing post learning then, note that, this is simply because they dread the way the school systems function.



Formal education from the beginning of time never intended to be places of joyful, creative learning. Modern schools were formed on the principles of conformity, compliance and linear processes to deliver highly standardized knowledge to young people so they could work in factories. The schooling system in India today has not really moved much beyond this considering they endeavor to make the nation’s workforce internationally competitive by holding education to firm guidelines and standards. In the year 2000, many countries like UK and Germany performed poorly in the Program for International Student Assessment Test. Shocked by the poor results, these countries wanted ways to enhance the performances of the students but, unfortunately they once again planned education like an efficient factory, thus, setting out exactly what the student must learn and ignoring individual needs. It’s no surprise that most Indians consider a mediocre and meaningless existence whilst earning a sum more significant as opposed to daring to dream and doing things that matter.



Now if this is the case of the neuro-typical ones, can we imagine what we are doing to those with neuro-diverse minds. Firstly, we label them thus, demeaning them and putting ourselves and our failed ideas on the pedestal. We force these minds to fit into the existing systems which have not even benefited those who do not have any adaptation challenges whilst barking on about how the system is perfect and the problem lies with this neuro-diverse minds. A mind that has super senses and is capable of understanding nuances that the neuro-typical mind may completely miss is considered a curse and while this child is made to comply in a linear process which only reinforces confusing signals, a lot of time is lost and a child is left with cognitive regression and multiple other labels like low-functioning, aggressive, ADD, ADHD, dyslexic, depressed, unempathetic etc.



Now, let us try and focus on the reasons and how this system is failing the children on the autistic spectrum. The very first singular hampering factor is the overly standardized educational system. As much as the policy makers or schools might think otherwise, the human mind cannot be standardized, and education shouldn’t be either. Schools want children to sit in a classroom and learn by listening to the teacher explain things. The truth is that this model will never fit the natural, personal learning styles that the human mind is endowed with. A simple thought experiment has proved it time and again the humans do not learn in the same way and neither do they learn at the same level at the same age. Nonetheless, all these students are grouped by their age and not their skill levels. Is it really surprising that the standards movement is failing to improve the educational outcomes?



So what does this standardized system actually do to that child with autism?

  • One, the long lectures given by the teacher in a setting that does not use any other sensory mechanism to explain concepts but, simply focuses on spinning a web of words displaces this mind which then, stops to listen and or if listening limits to acquiring advanced echolalia skills which create a stimming loop that strengthens the negative neural pathways in the mind of the child.

  • The removal of experiential learning techniques and customized programs bearing in mind the strengths or the child lead the child to disengage thus, most of them do not read or write or comprehend what they read, write or listen to effectively.

  • Effective stim mechanisms are built which then lead to stronger OCD patterns and behaviors that originate in due time thus, hampering the development of positive neural pathways.

  • No learning takes place and hence, the child’s concept of what is real and what is false in the world is skewed thus, we start to see the stepping in of mental illnesses in the teenage years.

  • If communication was at all built in the early years, then that is reduced to need-based communication due to the child not being able to attach meaning or significance to this mode of expression. Children interpret communication as a tool of making one comply irrespective of understanding their intrinsic needs and in rebellion, this mind completely disconnects and chooses to live within the bubble that ensures low anxiety levels.

  • Consistent assessments and exercises create high anxieties thus, increasing the chances of seizures and negative psychological impact on these young minds.

  • Students with skills outside the prescribed academic areas like those who are great at working with their hands, music or movement are discouraged by the standards movement thus, closing any possibilities of success.

  • As a result, these minds who have the potential to become a Temple or a Stephen Wiltshire are all reduced to becoming alienated from the society and leading unproductive lives which eventually leads mental breakdowns that consume them completely.

It is because of all the above reasons that Sense Kaleidoscopes was founded by me and my co-founder Anima Nair. SK is an “Autism Specific Creative Learning School” in the city of Bangalore. Now, it is mandatory to bear in mind that this term “CREATIVE LEARNING SCHOOL” does not describe a school with four hours of art classes, 1 hour of music and maybe 1 hour of yoga or a mix of other social activities as opposed to one hour of art wedged in between a Math or English or Science class/assessment protocol.



Instead, it means a change of perspective in the way teaching and learning processes are mapped or designed to enhance the possibilities of learning that would be meaningful to any individual in this modern world. It means avoiding strict schedules, guidelines and frequent and aimless assessments which are replaced by new models of creating ideal learning environments, customizing programs for each individual student and challenging every teacher to think beyond the box to become solution providers, without any restrictions. In these models, everyone learns, including the teachers, the parents and the schools themselves. This is SENSE KALEIDOSCOPES – a vision wherein every child with autism will get the necessary means to achieve their potential along with a strong voice to defend themselves when they are called ‘different’ or ‘autistic’ or simply wrong for being ‘neuro-diverse’.



A creative learning school aims to foster unique personalities, creativity and talents of the individual students. And the work we are doing at Sense is working to build a process that will guarantee the necessary cognitive development of all those children who have the potential and the possibilities. We are not willing to make any more sacrifices of this neuro-diverse mid because of myths or associated theories that parents or schools suffer from. Questions that we want to bring to the spotlight are “Is it fair to provide an education that a parent deems fit because of tradition?” “Is it not time that we start to question the ways in which our own thinking is damaging the progress of our own children?” “Is it wrong to have a niche system that suits the specific needs of this mind?” Is social stigma going to decide the path that a child must be put in for his own cognitive development?” “Are you a responsible parent if you are giving into social stigma as opposed to challenges set methodologies and building new systems for the children”?

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