We are the ONE AND ONLY ART SCHOOL for AUTISM in INDIA that works solely for and with AUTISM! We are a GAME-CHANGER.
Besides being an ACADEMIC, MOVEMENT and COMPUTER unit too. Yes, doing too much but sometimes, there is just no other way to solve a problem. Especially when so many fret and shy away from working with teens with Autism, it became mandatory for the few who wanted to – to go all out and do it all. And that’s what we are doing.
The vision is to create PROFESSIONAL ARTISTS from the AUTISTIC SPECTRUM.
The CORE VALUE PROPOSITION is to ensure FINANCIAL and LIVELIHOOD INDEPENDENCE for autistic people by tailoring CUSTOMIZED cognitive and creative arts-centric programs.
Many, I met wondered what the point of such an exercise was? Many others speculated about the sustainability of such a proposition? And most others simply had no faith in it as the arts did not stand a chance when compared to the sciences and technology.
Even now, being an artist in India is considered an atrocious choice of profession and judgements are flung about by different people based on their own perceptions of the arts with regards to the possibilities of a secure future.
Some very strong reservations came from the general perception of the abilities attached to people with Autism and the possibility of making them achieve such a place. Post my exposure to some of the children on the spectrum, I too spent many sleepless nights wondering how I was going to design and drive such an effort.
Despite all these doubts and apprehensions and many assessments and trials, I was able to establish the first artist in my pilot. This pilot went beyond my expectations and the work done in this case-study has been exceptional.
I could not have done it alone and I am very grateful to my team and the artists who came and worked alongside me with so much dedication and commitment that we could get the world to stop and pay attention to us.
Today, this article is a toast for all those who stood/ stand by me and worked/work on the floor despite all the tough days when we got into arguments with each other, when we got hit, bitten or pushed because of an in-house tantrum and when we almost got brought down to our knees by the many who did not support us. Yet, we never gave up and kept pushing, we put our heads down and just worked – worked hard and sincerely.
It takes courage to work in my space and I am grateful to all those who stood with me and worked solely to better the skills, behaviors and processes to build artists on the spectrum.
While, I say thanks for a solution I think we still have far more questions that we need to answer? Why was getting solutions so difficult in India? Why was a teacher who has worked with a student not able to tell why he was not developing? Why are there no clear ways to measure results here? Why are parents so scattered and not able to learn faster and adapt and provide better solutions for their children and hold the system accountable too? Why were so many children with Autism being institutionalized here? Why were so many children with Autism not being able to study higher grades, pick up skills, have a vocation? What is this pre-voc training that everyone talks about here when so many kids don’t even meet the basic ADLs? Why does a child with Autism also have MR here? WHY?
These are hard questions and much more harder to answer. As I believe one thing at a time – so today let’s just focus on the vocational possibility that we created and a litlle about the hows and whys.
What is this Autism that I was looking at and why was it so different?
I have studied, trained and worked with Autism for 16 years now. Most of my working experiences were in Scotland and the Autism that I had seen there was totally different to what I was dealing with here in India. Children, I sensed as high-functioning were labelled Autistic and had no communication skills and zero ability to manage social or cognitive situations. PDD-NOS, which with the right support mostly could then turn to an Aspie in Scotland; here, the same PDD-NOS could become severely autistic with MR traits. This was a new world for me.
The system in Scotland that I trained in is build on innovative models of teachings, shared learnings, strong and active eco-systems that will stop at nothing to get their children the right interventions, communities of parents that will toil away and build frameworks for success and trials and pilots that are constantly in place to find newer ways to solve each and every detail that the children tends to struggle with.
I treaded slowly and started to build my support systems. There was no hurry and it was essential that I chose my students with reasonable logic. I was yet again reminded that if you meet one child with Autism, the truth is that you have met only one child with Autism. No amount of experience of exposure can help you slot them or categorize them which is how the label works and hence is called spectrum disorder. This also means that no prescribed mechanics of teaching could ever be formulated as the best one to deal with Autism. Yes, a few basics to ensure there is structure and predictability is all that can help a trainer, but other than that it is a world of unknowns.
Can we really train them to be artists?
These kids who were chosen did not have any exposure to the arts or any self-inclinations either. They were not prodigies either and most were infact completely new to the world of arts. Reason being that even though there maybe many summer workshops and arts teachers, no one would think that training an autistic kid would be worth their while because either the experience would be lacking, or it will have to be a one on one which would make the process extremely exorbitant or simply because the parent would be running helter skelter trying to get help for basic education, who can try to run looking for art classes then?
The students seemed to come across as possibilities and each was picked on a different premise. One was chosen coz he was a sensory-oriented and very tactile. Another was chosen coz he could do caricatures, yet another was chosen because he had a fascination for trains and so on and so forth. We had to build from ground up. It’s not an easy task and while today my artists are called ‘par excellence’ – I know what it took and how much we still toil to get them there. And I am also aware that this is a continuous journey with most of them because in this creative world, you can’t be static, you can’t be monotonous and you most definitely can’t be pattern-oriented and all of the above are what my students with autism love – and our battle is to consistently break that and push for more and more development.
How did we do it? Are we there yet?
Even today, we toil and work through many nights and days trying to find more process designs and or module training mechanisms which I then have to break down to fit their needs.
First we had to run many one on ones and that was killing us financially. But it needed to be done, our transitions are always on one on ones and we spend one dedicated resource and space for the desired effect. It is definitely not the best model to survive as an organization but it does give the student the best chance to bloom.
Second, we realized that each and every student was different, each and every program had to be different too. I had to customize each and every student’s program based on their interests and their personalities. The rotations we had to do with the artists was almost impossible. Some days it felt like we would fall apart. If one artist was absent or one student threw a tantrum, the entire planning would go out of the window. We had practical difficulties with resources and also hiring and paying people what they wanted because we were a school with 5 children and we just did not have any monies.
Thirdly, I then realized that it would be impossible to work with just a superficial framework of the arts. I had to go down to the very basics – I started to build an arts curriculum specifically to teach children with Autism. The curriculum took a huge chunk of my time and my team was put through many drafts of workings – some of which worked and some of which was flung out of the window on days of desperation.
We had to devise an AUTISM SPECIFIC ARTS CURRICULUM and that is no easy task. We learnt as we went on and started to test our curriculum, we started to see fascinating results with my pilot. To ensure that it was not a one of, we tested the curriculum with more boys and to our relief, it worked effectively with everyone.
Four, the balance between designing a curriculum, dealing with teaching resources and limitations whilst trying to address the specific needs of each student was just the beginning. We then went ahead to also curate and collaborate with the students to build their portfolios, gallery works, commissions etc. All of this in a limited space, with limited fees and also limited resources.
It seems like a monumental task but I am grateful to my team that still pushes on and works hard to deliver to my satisfaction. And I am a hard task master – very very hard to please.
Are we there yet?
Definitely NOT. We are way too young and still building, we need more help and more support. But, we intend to get there and that is non-negotiable.
Needless to state, the above process has been a great learning for me. And these learnings are also what I hope to share with one and all. It is mandatory for me to do so, because I do think that sometimes the operational efforts get sidelined because the people driving it are so busy working at the grassroots that they forget to share their journeys.
And this makes many feel like it is simple and easily achievable task, which is definitely not the case. From the outside, while it all seems glamorous, the insides are still evolving, struggling and persisting to survive. While most other special schools, art schools and educational institutions may take interest and think that it is doable as they may already be established, I can safely state that – that exact thought will be their point of defeat.
And I state that with pride because we have gone through a metamorphosis which is still very active and we do what we do due to this ever-changing process that does not seem to stop teaching us.
Nothing will be gained if nothing is lost and all will be learnt if all is at stake. That is the reality of our process. And if anyone wants to replicate this process then they will need to do it the way we did it, as truly there can’t be any other way unless the entire system is overhauled.