On World Autism Awareness Day, we look at the many activities, workshops and therapies in the city designed for children with the spectrum disorder
Tomorrow, we will all see blue. As part of the global ‘Light up blue for Autism’ initiative, many city buildings—from Madras Race Club and the Ripon Building to Chamiers and SPI Cinemas—will sport the colour in honour of World Autism Day. This is just a small step in spreading awareness about one of the world’s fastest growing developmental health challenges (a 2014 CDC report claims that one in 68 US children have autism, while in India some claim that three in every 1,000 have it). The sheer volume of information out there is dizzying, but Gita Srikanth, founder of We CAN, the centre for autism in Neelankarai, states that parents are often confused. “They are a vulnerable population and feel pressurised to do everything because they don’t want to feel they missed out on something that could miraculously help their child,” she explains, adding, “But since autism is a spectrum disorder, the needs differ from child to child. They need to step back and redefine education according to their child’s specific requirements.” While communication and language building skills are part of most therapy, we look at other alternatives you could consider. How about pottery for sensory integration and trampolines to improve balance? Read on.
Art as therapy
Pottery: Malini Kalyanam has been working with autistic children for more than a decade. “Pottery helps them improve their hand-eye coordination, develop better reflexes, learn time management and also gets more focus,” says the founder of Artistic Pottery Training Academy, who adds that though many children may not like the wetness of clay in the beginning, with patience and sequential patterns of teaching, they will soon grow to love it. Rs 500 per class. Details: malinipottery.com
Painting: Art is fun. We CAN’s Srikanth, who often works with Forum Art Gallery for art workshops for autistic children, says, “In all the sessions, the artists just let the children be—to have fun with colours, paints and textures. Any therapeutic results—like developing play skills, social skills, patience, etc—come as an added bonus.” Tomorrow, volunteers from The Paint Box will paint the walls at We Can, along with children. “We plan to do this over three-four consecutive Saturdays. We will also be exhibiting craft products made by them at Chamiers,” she adds.
Fit for life
The Quad: Some children with autism struggle with activating the right muscle groups at the right time. “Research has shown that using structured movements, like exercise, dance and yoga, can improve neuromuscular coordination. Our programme will start with simple movements that challenge (and develop) balance and coordination. Then, based on each child’s progress, it will move on to aligned walking, moving opposite limbs smoothly, running and so on,” explains Raj Ganpath, co-founder of The Quad, adding that they are working with We CAN. Details: thequad.in
Super Body, Super Brain: Trainer Yashvanthy Sunil swears by this workout, which claims to maximise brain activity. “With the programme, we help activate both sides of the brain, thus creating new neurons, which will help the basal ganglia, the part of the brain involved in coordination. I start small, like asking the child to lift his left leg while lifting a ball with his right, and then slowly graduate,” says Sunil, who adds she is seeing results. Personal training classes from Rs 1,000 per month. Details: 9962635888
In the saddle
Chennai Equitation Centre: Hippotherapy, or treatment with the help of horses, has been proven to be beneficial for children with autism. “When they get on a horse, it calms them down, they develop a sense of balance and it creates movement that increases blood flow,” says Kishore Futnani, the managing trustee. Though they don’t have a hippotherapist, parents have been bringing children there for years and he says, they have seen visible improvement. Rs 3,500 a month (and free of cost for less privileged children). From 6-7 am and 5-6 pm. Details:firstname.lastname@example.org
The Farm: While they don’t organise special rides for children with the spectrum disorder, they are open to tying up with organisations if they would like to bring the children there. With horses, cows, chickens and more, it is a great place for the children to just be. Rates will be subsidised for such events. Details: email@example.com
Café Samarth: V-Excel Educational Trust, an NGO working in special education, is opening a cafe as part of World Autism Day. “We noticed a deep interest in cooking among young adults—they derive a sense of accomplishment, while learning social skills, measurements and the concept of money. So we decided to turn it into a livelihood opportunity, with “Café Samarth,” says Vasudha Prakash, the founder-director. In RA Puram and Adyar, the café will serve “gluten-free dishes that are simple to prepare”, like ragi dosa, akki roti and panagam (Rs 30 onwards). Open on Fridays and Saturdays, 3.30-6.30 pm.
Office skills training: V-Excel will also provide training for people with autism (above 17 years) in data entry, printing solutions, Photoshop and graphic designing. “The programme is for a minimum of two years and will be followed by supported internships,” says Prakash. On Luz Church Road, Mylapore, from April 4. Rs 4,000 per month. Details: 2498 6368
A trampoline is fun, but it also has an important place in therapy. If a child gets agitated quickly, it helps them release that energy in a positive manner. And for those with low levels of energy, it increases “the feedback from their muscles and joints to their brains”, so they have a better sense of their body in relation to the environment. It also improves balance,” says Sowmya Surendranathan, founder of FiVE, a paediatric therapy centre. Rs 3,800 onwards at Emerald India Hobby Centre. Details: 28520783
Reading helps with comprehension and listening skills—like picture books with bright colours
and simple storylines. And then there are those
that help children understand their disorders better, like Kathy Hoopmans’ All Cats Have Asperger
syndrome. Here are two new picks:
Isaac and his Amazing Asperger Superpowers!: Isaac has superpowers that make him different—his brain remembers loads of things, he has the energy to bounce on his trampoline for hours, and his ears can even hear the buzzing that lights make. He has Asperger syndrome. This first-person narrative will help children see the world through the eyes of a child with the high-cognitive type of spectrum disorder. Rs 1,286. Details: amazon.in
Avalukendru Or Manam: Meaning ‘A Mind of her Own, the book is a compilation of diary entries (from 2010-15) of 34-year-old Aishwarya Sriram, who is autistic. “The book (in Tamil) records moments in her everyday life, along with drawings of people who’ve crossed her life. We brought it out to help inspire others with autism,” says B Sriram, her father. Available on order. Rs 250. Details: 9842181949
For young children, “apps can help motivate through animations and audio-visuals, and also aid in kinaesthetic learning,” says Hemalatha G, a special educator with Sankalp – The Open School and Learning Centre.
LetterSchool: Developed by Sanoma Media, it is effective in teaching writing, formation of letters, counting, phonetics and more. Free download. Details: itunes.apple.com
AutisMate: This customisable app helps children get comfortable with familiar and new surroundings. You can set up personalised schedules, stories, videos, using images from the child’s real environments. Rs 9,940 (for iPad). Details: autismate.com
Puzzle apps: The spatial orientation of the puzzle pieces, along with the finger movements required, enhances visual perception and attention span. From food to animal puzzles, these apps by iAbuzz are available for free download. Details: store.google.com
AngelSense is an app and a wearable device (with GPS, voice-monitoring solution and a magnetic lock) that is designed specially for children with special needs, who might have a tendency to wander off. The app collects location data every 10 seconds, while the listening device helps parents assess surroundings for any possible threats. A new feature, First Responder Alert (added in January), will ping parents if it senses the child’s phone is moving. They can then send a text to a list of contacts with details about the child’s location. Rs 9860 approx. Details:angelsense.com
Give a call
If you want to set up a sensory integration space, give Ravi Shankar, an occupational therapist who runs the Rehab Store a call. He will customise equipment according to your child’s needs. Details: 8508575075
“Visual cues help children understand what is expected from them and mentally prepare them for daily activities. For example, if a child goes to the bathroom and keeps forgetting to wash his hands, put up a photograph—showing him wash his hand, using the towel, and so on—so he understands the structure. This can even be incorporated for school routines,” says Sowmya Surendranathan, founder of FiVE, a paediatric therapy centre.
Theraputty: A popular occupational therapy tool, this non-sticky silicone putty helps in developing fine motor skills and sensory needs. The putty is colour-coded on its resistance level. Rs 342 onwards. Details: helpthemshine.com
Big is better
Large keypads: These may have been designed for senior citizens, but many parents find that the Easyfone—with big keys that are easy to use and easy to read—are great for children with fine motor skill difficulties. Rs 3,375. Details: seniorworld.com
BigKeys keyboards: BigKeys, which specialises in large keyboards, makes them in QWERTY and the ABC format. User-friendly, they have coloured keys that help children focus and makes learning easier. From Rs 11,854. Details: bigkeys.com
By Surya Praphulla Kumar
With inputs from Saloni Sinha and Lalitha Ranjani