Community home away from home

Apart from the ARC, Pradeep created a Day Activity Centre (DAC) for children on the autism spectrum, in Sathuvachari, Vellore.
The residential centre employs special methods and trained staff teaching academics and life skills.
The residential centre employs special methods and trained staff teaching academics and life skills.

VELLORE: When his two-year son was diagnosed with autism, Pradeep Jeyathilak was fretful like any father, but not overtly distraught. The 54-year-old, who worked with Unilever as a tea taster in the UK, knew he had to do something to help build an independent future for him and other autistic kids. He returned to India in 2019.

Initially, Pradeep’s son used to live with the family. But, when he turned 15, he was sent to a residential autism centre in Hyderabad. “When he reached adolescence, my son started harming himself,” Pradeep recalls, stressing the urgency for a solution closer to home.

In 2020, the Vellore native came up with the Autism Residential Community (ARC), a residential set-up designed for autistic adults to live in harmony with nature, with a routine and a structured programme of engagement solely for autistic individuals – a first of its kind initiative located in Anaicut.

Supporting individuals with autism, particularly as they transition into adulthood, becomes crucial. “I started to think about who would take care of my son after my wife and I are gone. That concern extended to all autistic adults,” says Pradeep.

The ARC was moulded by parents of autistic children. Initially, it operated out of a rented facility with four autistic adults living full time. Today, it accommodates 13 autistic adults, including Pradeep’s 26-year-old son Sharan. ARC’s inception was funded by Pradeep himself, his family, and some like-minded people. The residential centre employs special methods and trained staff teaching academics and life skills. The facility is designed with autism-specific features, including secure spaces and specially-adapted bathrooms. “We teach them everything, right from scratch. Each adult has their own room and receives individualised care. We accept autistic adults above 18 years of age, regardless of their level of functioning,” says Pradeep.

“We are charging a minimal price for the stay, as we do not receive any government funding,” adds Pradeep, noting that the cost of care also covers the centre’s operation cost.

Apart from the ARC, Pradeep created a Day Activity Centre (DAC) for children on the autism spectrum, in Sathuvachari, Vellore.

According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in the US, autism among children is increasing at an alarming rate and is estimated to be as high as one child in every 60 children. With the ever-growing and ageing autistic population, Pradeep expects the

DAC to play a significant role in the Vellore community. Given that there are no residential centres in Tamil Nadu that deal solely with autistic children/adults, as Pradeep points out, both the DAC and the ARC have become the first steps in the direction of care centres exclusively for autistic individuals.

The stigma attached to autism entails Pradeep and other founding members to interact with communities. He highlights the challenges he faced while interacting with families in rural areas. “I see many parents in rural areas questioning why a special child should have to attend school. Over time, this affects the entire family’s mental health. Who will take care of the kid after their parents? They often hope their children can attend regular schools. This mindset needs to change,” rues Pradeep.

ARC conducts awareness programmes for parents. For the past two years, the Supporting and Educating Vellore in Autism (SEVA) group has grown to 130 parents of autistic children. Pradeep receives numerous calls from parents across the country seeking help to understand autism. ARC recently signed an MoU with NGO Pravaham Community College, which is working towards women’s empowerment, and Christian Medical College to disseminate information about autism education and therapy in a three-month course.

Calling on government recognition and support, Pradeep said, “Autistic children need a safe and legally protected environment.” While finding experienced staff could be challenging, I love what I am doing, he added.

(Readers can contact Pradeep on +917094221204)

(Edited by Shrija Ganguly)

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