Today is World Autism Awareness Day, but how many of us actually have a basic understanding of the neurodevelopmental condition?
It is estimated that one in every 68 children is diagnosed with the Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in India, which despite amounting to a lesser prevalence percentage, is certainly a large number, and calls for better awareness and creating inclusive learning spaces across the country.
This is particularly important, as many mainstream schools and educational institutions in India admit autistic kids without understanding the disorder or the need for specific and comprehensive teaching models. Later, these kids are either asked to leave or derided for their inability to function socially or grasp academics the way a ‘normal’ child would do.
The fact that most schools across the country are only passably equipped to cater to kids with mild needs and are a complete let down when it comes to moderate and extreme degrees of impairment, led one woman to create a first-of-its-kind teaching program which focuses on teaching functional skills and communication for autistic kids, to help them lead independent, productive, and rewarding lives as adults.
The need to embark on this journey emerged for Archana Nayar, due to her personal experience as the parent of an autistic son, when she found the availability of autism-centric services in the country to be pitiable.
The Autism Centre for Excellence or ACE was established in 2014 as a non-profit organisation in Delhi with the mission of transforming the autism landscape in the country.
This, they do, through high-quality interventions for children, professionalising teaching space through rigorous training, continuing education sponsorships for teachers and advocating the cause of Autism in the community.
“We aim to create long-term intervention strategies in a child’s life from the early years into adulthood so as to understand the strengths and capabilities of each child. We also seek to maximise learning by providing a consistent and safe environment. The programme has been created as a seamless environment between teachers, parents, and caregivers so that skills can be rapidly learnt and applied in real life,” says Archana to The Better India.
With a strong teaching curriculum based on the principles of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) and 1:1 teacher-student balance, ACE reaches out to 35 children aged between 3 and 17 years with a staff of 40.
One of the major achievements that we could say ACE was instrumenting in mobilising was that of illuminating Delhi’s most prominent monument, the Qutub Minar, on April 2, last year.
Every year, different countries across the world take part in global Light It Up Blue campaign and light up their most iconic sites in blue to show their support for Autism. With the vision of raising greater awareness on the subject in the society, ACE has managed to bring India as well under this sphere by collaborating with Autism Speaks, an international autism advocacy organisation.
This year too, the stone minaret will be lit in shades of blue at 6pm today, and hopefully, help to begin a dialogue to ignite a better understanding about one of the most misunderstood developmental disorders in the world.
Besides this, the entire month of April is dedicated towards creating awareness for autism across the world where different organisations take up interesting initiatives for not just children or parents but the community as a while, and ACE isn’t far behind.
Along with the #LightItUpBlue global campaign, ACE will also be holding training programmes for special educators along with parent community of Delhi/NCR region, conducting sensory-friendly movie screenings for special needs families, flash mobs in public spaces, restaurant visits, radio shows for awareness and awareness campaigns and talks in corporate organisations, throughout April.
Amongst these, it is the sensory-friendly movie screening initiative partaken by ACE that is a breakthrough achievement for autism in India.
“Most cinema halls and multiplexes are a far cry away from catering differently-abled individuals, let alone autistic kids. The regular lighting and sound system in such areas end up causing sensory overload for kids. To help them enjoy cinema just like everyone else but tapered to their terms, we approached PVR cinemas and have been able to organise movie screenings for our children successfully,” Archana proudly adds.
Though societal acceptance and public familiarisation of autism are amongst ACE’s longstanding goals, what the organisation envisions primarily is ensure that the kids are seen and heard in the society and not shunned for their disability.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)