World Autism Awareness Day: Special schools joust with Covid19 to teach autistic children

Education amid the pandemic becomes a challenging task for autistic children

Society

April 1, 2021

/ By / Delhi

World Autism Awareness Day: Special schools joust with Covid19 to teach autistic children

Special needs children studying in Vatsalya Special School (MIG photos/Palak Chawla)

While the pandemic and the ensuing closing of schools has hit almost all students, the impact of closed schools and other restrictions has been the harshest on special needs children. Some schools, like Vatsalya Special School in New Delhi, are trying to make a difference.

Every day at 10 am, a group of about 20 children, aged between 3-20 years, wait in line in a locality in west Delhi for the gates of their school to open. Teachers take special care to escort the kids from the gates to their respective classrooms. Presently functioning at 40 pc capacity, the school has one teacher for a class of six students.

In a country where classroom sizes vary from 40-100 students, it is a rare school that has barely six students per class. But then Vatsalya Special School in Punjabi Bagh is no ordinary school and neither are the students ordinary. Vatsalya is a special school catering to children with different neurodevelopmental disorders like autism, attention deficit hyper activity disorder, learning disability, cerebral palsy and Down’s Syndrome.

While most schools were expected to make do with online classes since the pandemic outbreak last year, for Vatsalya that was not an option. “While some of our students can study online, most cannot. It became very difficult for parents to manage their kids at home as some autistic children can be hyperactive and therefore many parents requested me to re-open the school,” Neetu Tuli, director of Vatsalya Special School tells Media India Group.

Why special schools?

Even though some autistic children can function extremely well in a regular school with the help of an understanding and empathic mentor, for others with higher support needs, individual attention and care becomes important and the rigidity and pressures of regular schools makes it difficult for them to cope.

Children celebrating Christmas in school before the pandemic (MIG photos/Palak Chawla)

“We have regular speech and occupational therapies. When a child is admitted into the school, we observe her for a week and then call the parents back for a detailed assessment to discuss whatever we have observed about the child’s behaviour and the parents’ take on the same. After this meeting, we create an Individual Education Plan (IEP), of the child based on the week’s observation. This IEP is followed for three months, after which the progress is noted and the parents are called again and are given a copy of the IEP while one copy remains with the teacher. Parents are asked to follow a similar kind of plan at home as well. This helps the child progress as she gets accustomed to a certain kind of environment at school and at home as well. Revaluations are done after three months to see if the goals set by the special educator have been achieved or not. The occupational and speech therapy is on need basis,” says Tuli.

The children are given individual attention and are taught basic life skills along with the specialised workshops and therapy sessions by professionals who are trained and well equipped to cater to their needs.

But caring for autistic kids comes with its own set of challenges, “Some children with autism can be hyperactive at times, they may even parents, educators and even themselves. This becomes challenge sometimes.” says Umesh Kumar, occupational therapist at Vatsalya Special School.

Impact of Covid-19

The outbreak of the pandemic and the resultant closure of schools as well as various outdoor activities has taken a severe toll amongst the special-needs children. The school authorities say for many students the pandemic has proven to be a huge setback.

“Before the pandemic, many students who had shown substantial progress have gone back to zero post Covid-19, making it even more difficult for parents to handle them and take care of them at home,” explains Tuli.

While people all around the globe faced difficulties to adjust to the ‘new normal’, it became even more difficult for educators to make students suffering from ASD to adhere to the Covid-19 guidelines. “The two most important things that need to be followed during the pandemic are wearing masks and social distancing. Making students comply with the rules of social distancing, wear masks and sanitise themselves is a huge task. Luckily now they have started to listen to us and wear their masks, but even then we are faced with many challenges as a large of the curriculum of these students is occupational therapy and that becomes very difficult while they wear masks, but we are trying to find solutions for issues as we move forward,” Tuli tells Media India Group.

Role of parents

Children suffering from ASD and other neuro-developmental disorders are often subjected to societal stigmas and isolation. Therefore many parents refuse to send their children to school or in some cases even refuse to acknowledge their child’s condition. “We have been lucky there, all the parents who send their children to us are extremely supportive and understanding. Though many parents do try to initially send their kids to normal schools hoping they are just slow learners but once they see that their child is not able to cope with that pressure, they look for schools like ours,” says Tuli.

Caring for autistic children maybe demanding especially when it comes to those with a severe form of the condition, therefore it becomes important to provide counselling to the parents as well. “We provide counselling sessions for parents on the days of parent teachers meeting on need basis,” says Umesh Kumar.

Though some individuals with autism are able to lead their lives on their own, others with severe symptoms require life-long care and support. Planning residence to accommodate such children for when they become adults is seen as an important need. “Children with autism would require a care-giver through-out life. Even though in some cases where children have mild symptoms, care-givers are not needed but usually it is advised,” says Umesh.

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