Poor social skills, the inability to communicate and express feelings and the refusal to hold eye-contact – these are often believed to be defining characteristics of a child with autism. However, this group of police personnel from Neelankarai would beg to differ. On Tuesday students from Chrysalis, a school for holistic development of autistic children, celebrated World Autism Day by reaching out to the community around them. After painstakingly assembling vegetable sandwiches and mixing up a can of juice, the students visited the Neelankarai police station to serve their friendly neighbourhood cops with a healthy snack and refreshments on a hot day. It was also a thank-you gift for supporting them earlier in the morning, when the children formed a human chain on East Coast Road with parents and teachers, handing out pamphlets to raise awareness on autism.
Holding placards with messages about inclusion and acceptance of autistic individuals, the kids piqued the curiosity of motorists and passers-by. “A few people who stopped to read the placards seemed to know about autism; many others asked for pamphlets about the condition,” said Rekha Supriya, principal of the school that has 30 students, aged between 4 and 14 years. “On the whole the awareness about autism is on the rise,” she says.
Autism is a brain developmental disorder that is increasingly prevalent in the city. While experts here say that 1 in 500 babies is diagnosed with autism, the actual prevalence is estimated to be 6 in 1,000, raising concerns about low levels of awareness among parents, and misdiagnosis of the genetic condition. Autism is very different from other genetic disorders as the cause still remains a mystery, and there are no screening tests.
“An autistic child has impaired social and communicative skills - he does not develop speech in time, and tends to be restless and hyperactive. However, if all the excessive energy is channelised properly at an early age, an autistic child can even go to a mainstream school, and pursue higher studies as well,” says Rekha Supriya. “Our main aim is to encourage people to accept these children as they are, to recognise their talents and to include them in society,” she says, explaining the need for awareness campaigns.
The school, with its enthusiastic staff of special educators, uses special methods to train the kids to communicate, comprehend, and groom and feed themselves. The kids are also given therapeutic lessons in sports, yoga, and activities like painting and cooking.
On Tuesday the parents and teachers of Chrysalis wore blue, the colour for autism awareness. When Neelankarai police inspector Pugazhendi visited the school, he was amazed by the efficiency of the three young boys fixing the sandwiches, assembly-line style - Amruth buttering slices of fresh bread, Sherwin chopping tomato slices like a pro and Harsha arranging slices of cucumber and tomato in perfectly identical patterns to complete the sandwiches; all with beaming, unfaltering smiles on their faces.