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What My Autism Heroes Taught Me: A Paediatric Occupational Therapist’s View

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People often tend to dismiss children with autism because of their developmental disabilities. However, these children and their approach to life can provide valuable lessons.

I first saw a child with autism in 2009. There he was, standing in the OPD room of our department in the hospital. I was amazed looking at him, as for me, like everyone, “disability” meant affected hands, legs unable to walk, or being wheelchair-bound. But this cute little boy was running, hopping, and rocking all around the place.

During those days, I was fighting some life and college issues, like everyone faces. But that day was different. It changed something in me. It was the first time that I could shift my focus from the confused, anxious me to this bundle of energy standing right in front of me. I wanted to know him, and how I, as an “occupational therapist”, could help him.

Thus began the quest to understand the complex disorder called autism. I started observing these kids, reading, and providing therapy.

Gradually, I started seeing results as well, and with it came the contentment that my soul had been searching for for years.

More than seven years have passed since my first encounter with autism, and the start of my quest to quench a thirst for knowledge of therapy techniques and change in societal outlook. When I look back at this time, something struck me, and I couldn’t resist writing about it.

I realized that more than me teaching these kids with Autism, it was they who helped me overcome my darkness, and taught me some important lessons of survival.

“Autos” means “self”. Autism means self-engrossed. These kids are just so OK being with themselves. In today’s day and age, when all of us are trying to be everywhere but with our own selves, these kids are truly unique for listening to the quiet voice of silence and experiencing that state of calm.

They can teach us something that all of us should be doing for better mental well-being.

Children with autism can play for hours with their hands and fingers, or just a simple car. It taught me how simple things in life — such as seeing a blooming flower, or having a happy family or a few trustworthy friends — were enough for us, rather than running forever in search of something more.

These kids love routine and structure, something that we, including the typical kids, struggle with implementing. Treating them imbibed qualities of punctuality, regularity, and sincerity in me for my therapy sessions, and for life. A foolproof formula for success, isn’t it?

Kids with autism can remain fixated on one thing for a long time, attending to minute details with unwavering attention. In these days, when we and our typical kids are struggling with concentration issues, these special children taught me how one can ignore the chaos of the self (self-doubt, thoughts, and worries) and of the outer world (maddening race to nowhere, comparisons, and responsibilities).

The important thing is to remain focused on that one little goal that you just set for yourself till it’s achieved.

Children on the autism spectrum indulge in rocking, jumping, and hand-flapping as self-regulatory behaviors when they feel that they are experiencing too much, as a way to calm themselves down. Today, when most of us resort to blaming others, fighting, and projecting our feelings on others when we can’t solve a problem, they taught me how to introspect and find our own ways to calm ourselves before impulsively reacting to a situation.

These kids taught me that “it’s OK to not fit in.” I always found myself to be a misfit in my college days. They taught me that it was beautifully OK to be a misfit. It takes a lot of courage to stand against the crowd and prove your mettle, and these children can show how it is done.

They taught me that it’s OK to have a limited set of skills, but it is important to ace whatever you have. While we are all pushing ourselves and our kids to be jacks-of-all and masters-of-none, these little masters are oozing with talent and unknowingly polishing one particular skill that is just waiting to be tapped.

Wouldn’t that take away a big chunk of social anxiety and unnecessary competition and complexes?

During my sessions, I observed that the kids always got engrossed by anything jazzy on my clothes, till I resorted to simple clothes with almost minimal accessories. It taught me how amazingly beautiful simplicity can be. We don’t need to jazz up and mask our feelings, looks, and shortcomings to the outer world, but be available and easygoing yet uniquely simple.

Children with autism have difficulty understanding body language and speech, yet they always caught me off-guard by sensing my “vibes”. I got more hugs when I was worried, and sessions filled with laughter and life when I was happy. This taught me how to read people’s vibes, and reach out to the friends who were struggling silently with life but never voiced their problems.

I often wondered if these kids on the autism spectrum needed treatment, or we, as a society, needed to be “treated” by them. I still often wonder, “Did I therapeutically heal these kids, or did they therapeutically heal me?”

About the author: Dr. Kinjal Chandra is a pediatric occupational therapist, working with children with developmental disabilities at Pehel Pediatric Therapy Centre, Mulund, Mumbai.

To learn about how you can help children with development disabilities, visit Pehel’s Facebook page.

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