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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Autism : Embrace, do not Sympathize

The summery evening in Chennai was forcing the residents to seek refuge in malls and restaurants where the centralized air-conditioners assuaged the exhausted souls entering them. My friend Mohan and I pulled ourselves into a fine but hardly populated Italian restaurant whose fine tapestry with its laid-back lighting and mild music in the artificial coolth, provided a much needed relief from the aggressive weather outside. True to our innate space-hogging instincts, we grabbed a table for 4 and occupied 2 chairs. Ridiculously failing in the attempt to catch-up all the lost years, we savored the delicious broccoli soup sporadically blowing over it to mitigate its hotness.

A family of three including a 4-year old boy entered the restaurant. While the husband and wife, catching a glimpse of us, hesitated to come further in, the boy came scurrying towards us. He had a curious gaze and just before he could say something his father embraced him and whisked him off to another table.

In no time, the boy started whimpering and growling as he was forced to sit on the chair. His mother tried a variety of things – from cellphone to candy - which seemed to calm him only temporarily as his crying would return with a greater force. The father grew increasingly uncomfortable and approached the manager next to our table and asked: "Can you please give us quickly a chocolate fudge ice-cream ?"

"Preparing hot fudge could take time since it has to boil over. Would you like just a chocolate ice-cream instead, Sir ?"

"Whatever that is quickly possible please" - the father muttered and retreated quickly to his table.

I was surprised that a parent would order an ice-cream at the start of the dinner however maudlin and stubborn the child could be. A surge of moral superiority engulfed my mind as I pondered how ineffective modern-day parenting had become. Mohan’s chatter derailed my thought-train as we geared up to order the main course only to be interrupted by the high-pitched crying of the boy which made it impossible for me to concentrate on anything but the scene at his table. Unsettled by my curious and slightly admonishing gaze, the boy's mother quickly looked away as a sense of gloom appeared to have descended on her.

"Ice-Cream, Ice-Cream" - the screams grew stronger and showed no signs of abating. The mother's lips trembled in helplessness as the boy desperately clenched his teeth in the middle of his throes and pinched himself evoking a sense of pity in me. Simultaneously but unexplainably a wave of anger came over me when I saw the mother ranting animatedly to the father. He rose and approached our table when I let rip a cheeky but sufficiently loud comment to Mohan:

"What a travesty ! Modern day parenting seems to be only creating ill-disciplined children "

The father untouched by the comment, literally snatched the ice-cream from the manager and rushed back to his table which furthered my irritation as I wondered if I should have said something stronger. But Mohan's facial contortions seemed to clearly disapprove of my comment.

The moment the ice-cream was handed to the boy he erupted into an inconsolable cry with "don't want " being parroted regularly in between. My patience was wearing thin as I contemplated approaching the boy and giving him an earful. His mother now was at her begging best to calm him down. While the conversation itself was unintelligible, the scene that unfolded clearly told me that the boy was adamant he would not eat the ice-cream that was given to him in place of the hot-fudge ice-cream. His mother's efforts to carry him outside the restaurant failed as he knocked-off the ice-cream cup, lay on the floor and threw a tantrum waving his hands and legs vigorously.

With some effort his parents got him off the floor and his mother managed to hold him tight and exited the restaurant. The father pressed a 500 rupee note in the hands of the waiter and followed suit. I remarked to the waiter:

"You must be now so familiar with many types of customers"

"Sir, yes. They are our regular customers who usually sit at your table and what happened today is unprecedented"

"Seems like a spoilt child. How else.."

Mohan interjected : "Have you heard of autism ?"

While the word sounded fleetingly familiar, I was clearly unaware of what it really portrayed and that drew me into a momentary silence as Mohan continued:

"That boy could be autistic"

"How do you say that ?"

"Only an educated guess. From what I observed. From what I gather, we occupied his regular seat and that upset him tremendously"

"Well… is that even a matter ?"

"Not for us. But for the boy it could have been a shocking and depressing event. Autistics like repetition. That creates a sense of security to them. Any deviation from their norm can affect them heavily and they cannot reconcile as fast as others can"

"So was he trying to occupy our seat? Were his parents trying to give him ice-cream to appease him? "

"Autistics are not stubborn. They are insecure. Will you, apprehending that sitting in a new place could be dangerous, remain and act calm ?"

I blinked in silence and blurted : "How do you know all this ?"

"From my daughter's school which admits autistic children along with the general non-autistic ones"

"But admitting children with under-developed brains... "

"Autism does not necessarily mean sub-normally developed brains. Autism is a general term to indicate a differently developed mental faculty. It is a spectrum which could include people who have under-developed mental abilities. But it also includes many people who could rival Einstein in intellect"

"But I find it difficult to believe that normal kids could be in the same class as autistic kids and still learn well !"

"What is normal? You and I are considered "normal" by world standards. But are we alike? It is totally unnecessary to label and ostracize the autistics"

"So autism is not a disability ?"

"It is not necessarily a disability. Autistics are simply differently enabled. This is no euphemism but a reality. Taking this view, many countries consider autistics as differentiated and not debilitated"

My mind was filled with the thoughts of the boy and I suddenly trembled as if I had subsumed the boy's apprehensiveness.

"In my daughter's school there are a few children in every class who do show developmental delay"

"Are they not an impediment to the other kids?"

"No. It actually has made my daughter a more compassionate and empathetic individual. She has a better understanding than I had at her age about life--that life is not just a rat-race towards materialistic goals."

“While I do not advise my children to sit next to a studious child or not be friends with those who are not rank-holders, I find it difficult to believe that two students at two different levels of development can be in the same class."

" You are still trying to see this as black and white. A class of 30 students has 30 levels of development and not just 2. The problem is not with the stage of development, but the way we perceive it. Unfortunately our perceptions are marred by our pre-conceived notions about the success of a student--attending an institution of prestige, getting good grades, etc. We fail to recognize that what we learn from the books does not prepare us well socially"

I nodded, "Agree. I went to school because that was the norm. I feared the exams because others did. Before I could understand what I really liked to study, I was past 30."

"Not all children attend school with an academic intent. Some do so because they feel comfortable in the company of the known. It provides them with a sense of security and a calm atmosphere. The boy we saw could be one among those who fears new people and situations."

"But will it not be difficult for the other kids if he makes a ruckus in the school?"

"Initially yes. But to assume that he will make a scene every day is wrong. Schools which seek to integrate these children with those with special needs, perform an extensive research on their backgrounds. They talk to the other children of the same class and their parents and prepare them mentally to support this larger integration effort. A helper is assigned to each child with special needs to facilitate this effort. The class stands to benefit immensely if it were to get a teacher who doubles up as a special educator."

Mohan's words slowly constructed in me a scenario where all children were growing to become independent and—simultaneously--compassionate individuals. The acidic words I spilled thoughtlessly on the boy’s father weighed on me heavily as I my bowed involuntarily.

"I see you are thinking about the boy. But I believe his parents are used to verbal tirades like yours"

"You mean--my words would not have hurt them?"

"The words may have. But the courage of the parents to still take a chance to help their child integrate into the larger society is commendable."

"They ordered ice-cream for him. But even after getting the ice-cream he was screaming 'ice-cream'. Why was that?"

"Communication problem. What he says does not necessarily convey what he intends to. For example, you may know a few words in Hindi and may be able to say them well. That does not however mean you know and understand Hindi well. He may have associated the word ice-cream with the regular waiter serving a cold-gelato as his father and mother watched. Unfortunately, today his father moved from his usual place and a different gelato was served by him after discussion with manager. This is not what "ice-cream" means to him. That made him anxious. The only comforting factor was his mother's caress and body-language. Pardon me for saying this but spare a thought for the boy's parents. Whatever be the face they put in the wake of a scene, they are as human as we both are. They are uncomfortably aware of our prying eyes which could add to their guilt of not having handled the situation properly. "

Mohan's words were smooth but I felt them lacerating like a surgeon’s scalpel. I confessed whole-heartedly, "How pathetic of me to have judged them wrongly without a thought ! I am really ashamed of my small-mindedness."

"Did not intend to hurt you. Just presume that the child was not 4 but 2 years old. None of those tantrums would have been unacceptable. I sometimes feel that my daughter is growing too fast for me to savor her childhood. Consider the boy's parents to be blessed since they are seeing their child grow slowly allowing them this luxury."

"That is just a mollification of the actuality."

"No. What I am trying to say is that your sympathy is useless and must be duly dismissed from your mind. What they need is your whole-hearted acceptance."

That induced a pregnant pause as Mohan's words echoed in my mind with the intensity of a fog-horn only to be interrupted by the sight of the family reappearing at the restaurant's entrance. The boy came running towards us and Mohan promptly got up and asked him : "Would you like to sit here ?". The boy silently sat on the chair and started rolling the pepper-mill in his hand.

Mohan transferred our plates to the next table as I got up and said to the father : "Please feel free to sit here". A smile fleeted through his face as I struggled to work up mine to reciprocate.

(Based on a short story written by @Lalitharam Ramachandran in Tamil : )