Kolkata, April 3, 2017: Children with autism were the focus of an event organized today in Kolkata to mark Autism Awareness Day (which falls on April 2). The event was organized by Transcendent Knowledge Society, an NGO that runs Wonder House, a day-care centre for children with autism. The event was held at the NGO’s centre in Tollygunge.

The objective was to celebrate the lives of people with autism and to honour the efforts of those working to support children and adults with autism. Why the celebration? It is because misrepresentations of autism through the ages have turned it into a taboo and something that evokes negative vibes. But this need not be the case at all – as found out by this author, who was invited to perform her poetry on autism at the event.

The event started with a welcome address by Dr. Amrita Roy Chowdhury, social entrepreneur and founder of Transcendent Knowledge Society. This was followed by a number of performances. Singing by Roshni, 16, and Anushka, 8 seemed to indicate that establishing social interaction need not be an impossibility for children with autism. Similarly, Priya with her dance performance won over the hearts of an appreciative audience of about 50 people consisting of Wonder House students and their parents and guardians.

Inset: About autism: Several definitions and explanations for autism can be found online and offline. In Dr. Amrita Roy Chowdhury’s words, “Autism signifies a complex neuro-behavioural condition that includes impairments in social interactions and developmental language and communication skills, often combined with ritualistic behaviours. The condition covers a spectrum of symptoms related to lack of skills and levels of impairment.” She added, “Children with autism are different, they have limitations, they live in a world of their own. They avoid eye contact because they feel safe in doing so, whereas eye contact is necessary to communicate. Children on the spectrum have varying degrees of sensory processing problems. These range from over- or under-sensitivities, distorted or fragmented sensations, poor integration of the senses, and sensory modulation issues.” “They think, they react, they are emotional as well as sentimental but they may not be able to communicate with us or rather we can’t communicate to them. They understand each other’s language in their own way. They are believed to be rigid and can’t seem to accept changes. We try to create a safe environment for them where they may feel secure and can spend time as distinct individuals.”

Paroma Sengupta of PeaceWorks conducted an entertaining storytelling session, where the children participated with great enthusiasm playing with puppets, answering questions and responding to musical instruments.

For this author, writing poetry on autism and performing it in front of children with autism was one of the most difficult challenges she had faced as an aspiring writer and poet. The children gifted her their attention with birthday boy Swapnanil joining her, repeating every word she said, and clapping his hands. What more could a poet have asked for!

As Dr. Amrita Roy Chowdhury said, “We need to focus on children’s abilities rather than their inabilities. Through this event we wanted to bring forth the positive and colourful side of people with autism. It is not something to feel low or ashamed about. We should celebrate the feeling of ‘being different but no less’.”

Something to introspect about, not just for parents and caregivers but for everyone interested in building a more inclusive society.

Main photo credit: Transcendent Knowledge Society (photograph shows a scene from the event on April 3, 2017).