Autism is a neurological disorder of variable severity due to which the word spectrum is also used. It changes the way a person sees, hears, tastes, smells or even feels when one is touched or is touching something. People with autism could feel hypo or hyper sensations – hence, it is also called a sensory processing disorder.
It basically is a neuro-diverse brain – meaning it is wired differently; different from what we all know as the neuro-typical brain. This means that this particular mind thinks, feels and experiences things differently.
Autism is characterized by difficulties in cognition, communication, social interaction and by restricted and repetitive patterns of thought and behaviours. I strongly believe that each autistic child is different.
It’s not really easy to explain all the aspects related to something like Autism. You can read a book about it, you can watch some documentary that will make you think there’s something different about autistic people. Maybe you feel pity or sympathy for them or their families. If you only you understood that there’s nothing wrong with them and that they are also just people like you – they just think and sense the world around them differently.
We interacted with Akshayee Shetty, of Sense Kaleidoscopes – an organization that is dedicated to helping children and young adults who fall in the autism spectrum disorder. To try and explain this term in a meaningful way, we spoke to Akshayee about her students and their work. Focusing on how and why her program is helping such children and adults, we plan to run a short series in collaboration with Sense Kaleidoscope on ‘Understanding Autism’.
Each story will give you a glimpse into the lives of her students and show you how art has helped the young students. We start out with one of Akshayee’s first students – Pranav Nair. Today, we learn about a few aspects of his journey and see some of his work.
According to her, Pranav’s autism was unique to him and he faced several challenges…
One being his cognition, which had hampered or restricted his daily functioning in multiple areas. For example, Pranav’s mind would absorb language quite easily, he would pick up words and sentences spoken by people around him or even from TV and movies. It’s more echolalia because he would tend to pick up words and sentences through repetition.
But unfortunately his mind could not attach meaning to all those words and when those words were strung into sentences, it became more complex for him to understand meaning, contextuality, and application.
I remember one day, I corrected him when he made an error in the class. He started yelling at me and used the same words his mother would use at her maid. Now, all he did here was recreate the entire conversation his mother had with the maid in an angry tone – without understanding that those words did not make any sense in our situation.
His mind simply matched another angry situation to our situation – as in his anger was matched with his mother’s angry moment.
This was one of the biggest hurdles we faced with Pranav and so, the first task was to work on his cognition.
Another issue was that his mind would shut down if he made an error and he simply locked down when he realized he made some mistake. This behaviour made working on his cognition tricky. It created behaviour challenges, repetitive thinking patterns, hence barring generalisation of thought. He also had limitations in understanding, deciphering, expressing and analysing communication mechanisms.
The second most difficult aspect of his autism was the seizures. Pranav struggles with seizures, and they can hamper the functioning of the mind to a large extent. It also causes regression.
Pranav’s seizures were mostly linked to his emotions, just like for most kids on the spectrum. So, it became necessary to build his cognition first, and then the communication – which would eventually help u make him understand the significance of controlling his emotions. So he could also control his own seizures.
My faith in us being able to manage or control our minds is extremely high and I believe that if the mind is trained effectively then with discipline and consistent practice, it can achieve unbelievable heights.
A unique feature of Pranav’s autism, which I found very intriguing, was his Emotional Quotient. Pranav has a very high emotional quotient which is very rarely experienced by many.
Please do not misinterpret this as me stating that people with autism do not feel, but the real access problem for this mind with regards to emotions is that it does not
a. Process emotions like an NT (Neuro-Typical) mind.
b. Express them like the NT mind.
And let’s not forget
c. This mind does have trouble with imagination, and can’t understand the state of mind of the other person. Which is why most think that this mind is emotionless or can’t feel.
However, in Pranav’s case, he is very sensitive to other people’s emotions.
He is a warm, fuzzy fur ball of a mind. He is sensitive to other people’s moods and is aware of his own moods too. He is ever ready to help those in trouble and ever ready to give anyone a hug if they need it.
And as his cognition has improved, so has his expression.
His mother is my co-founder and the reason she started this school was because she did not see any improvement with Pranav’s cognitive skills.
She saw his behaviour growing, his resistance to study in any format was only increasing and his ability to connect and make sense of the world around him was decreasing.
So, she started the school and that was the beginning of the academic, and art programs at Sense Kaleidoscope.
Pranav was enrolled in both the programs. But the big push was to get him to engage in academics in a meaningful manner.
When we started, he refused to sit for a cognitive activity for even 5 minutes. We saw many task-avoiding habits and a big reluctance to engage.
Over time I realised that it was a combination of low-confidence, fear of making errors and a mind that could not attach meaning to words.
Our first task was to get him to engage-
We started him off on a one-on-one with a teacher inside a huge room which had no distractions. I had noticed that Pranav got disturbed by everything – more light, sound, people, smells and movement. So, we stripped a bathroom, locked down the commode, converted that room with one table and chair and one for the teacher and we did not even put a board. We worked on a piece of paper or his laptop, bearing in mind that his brain was struggling to focus and even the tiniest detail could derail him.
Pranav started improving, and from 5 minutes we moved up to 5 hours of working days with academics alone. He is the inspiration behind the design of the autism-specific curriculum that we have devised.
Bearing his difficulties and the way his mind processed concepts, we started to devise a curriculum.
Now you could wonder why? So let me touch on a few details.
After we removed the distractions, we realised that Pranav was not struggling with just issues in focusing, but he was actually struggling with multiple other reasons that restricted his cognitive development.
One, we found to our surprise that Pranav was not attaching any meaning to most of his vocabulary. He had a 4-year-old’s vocabulary and in that also only the straightforward words like a bat, ball, dog etc had meaning for him. Most words like it, he, was, come, go, behind, why, what did not make any sense to him. I understood that he was at a very basic labeling level and his application was happening only when the object was in sight. He was unable to retrieve that data when he wanted.
To push Pranav’s cognition, we worked in many ways.
We began working on his vocabulary, then we started to associate meaning to each word, the next level was to associate grammatical meaning which meant we helped him understand what the function of that word was – a noun will always be a naming word. Pranav became an expert in recognizing words and associating the right meaning to it. This led to sentence building and the ability for him to connect to conversations.
Now, he was making sense and he was responding correctly to people and making fairly sensible conversations. His expression also improved. During this time of development, he also attended art classes, science, did carpentry, grew vegetables in the terrace garden, and also math.
It was during this time we noticed that he developed an interest in art. He would work well in his academic sessions because he knew I would cancel his art if he did not. Also, he started to make drawings at home. They were all shapes and he created his own patterns. It was very interesting to see them. He was, of course, doing the basic art program and attending classes of form, color, space, zentangles, shapes, perspective, basic drawing, and textures.
Watching him make these drawings was the beginning of his abstract art. He was the one who led us to understand what he liked and this is an integral part of our program.
It is imperative to know that even though this idea sounds simple on paper, it’s not easy to execute in real life. Dealing with students like Pranav requires patience, experience and most importantly, an understanding of the problems faced by him every day. Akshayee and her team have successfully helped a number of children and have even managed to promote the work of her students. But even they need our help.
We try and spend a lot of time trying to identify the strong and narrow interests of the children. We are invested in working with the obsessions of our students and our mantra is to convert those obsessions to art.
It is unbelievable what can be achieved by only doing this.
As time progressed, we started to move Pranav into the creation of abstract art with shapes – working in an area that he was naturally inclined to, and thus, he became our little in-house Kandinsky.
Every time you talk to him, he will gleefully say – I am the Kandinsky artist!
*All the pictures used in the story belong to Sense Kaleidoscopes. We used some here to showcase the beautiful work of the young artist. Find more art pieces created by him, here.
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