In the first quarter of 2020 as life slipped into pandemic protocols and lockdown, one sector that saw a major paradigm shift was education. Schools shut; classrooms went ‘virtual’ and teachers became images on electronic screens. The impact was felt at the Bengaluru-based Bubbles Centre for Autism too.

In the first quarter of 2020 as life slipped into pandemic protocols and lockdown, one sector that saw a major paradigm shift was education. Schools shut; classrooms went `virtual’ and teachers became images on electronic screens. The impact was felt at the Bengaluru-based Bubbles Centre for Autism too.

According to the website of the American Psychiatric Association, “Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental condition that involves persistent challenges in social interaction, speech, and nonverbal communication, and restricted/repetitive behaviours. The effects of ASD and the severity of symptoms are different in each person.” Bubbles Centre for Autism is a unit of Biswa Gouri Charitable Trust (BGCT). BGCT has under its fold, three units – Bubbles Centre for Autism, Pragati Towards Livelihood and Aadhar Outreach Project. The units complement each other; Bubbles Centre for Autism caters to children up to the age of 16; Pragati is a vocational education program that offers training for those past regular schooling and Aadhar seeks to replicate the BGCT model for differently-abled youngsters in smaller towns.

When the lockdown arrived, the challenge was most felt at the school program catering to children due to their dependence on parents/adults. With one stroke, the lockdown eliminated the school’s physical classroom. Now the classroom would be the student’s house with the teacher accessed via a digital interface. A new actor had to be prepped for facilitating this phase – the parent.

Parents make special education work for kids amid COVID-19

In the new normal, while the teacher could continue to engage and instruct in the virtual classroom, somebody had to physically facilitate the interaction and monitor the student one-on-one at the other end. This became the parent’s responsibility. It meant, the parent – in most cases, the mother – had to be acquainted with the process and provided the tools. In many ways this was apt. As Sarbani Mallick, Founder Director, BGCT pointed out, empowering parents is what any school for special children would seek to do. Previously, parents had the choice not to get actively involved in the intervention process. The pandemic ensured they had to comply fully; they had no option but to get involved.

The New Normal For Children With Special Needs

Chitra Paul, Technical Coordinator of BGCT’s Aadhar Outreach Project, is the mother of a 15-year-old autistic boy. Away from BGCT and given her personal experience in the field, she also anchors social media groups featuring parents of autistic children. The pandemic-induced shift in education was a wake-up call to many parents, who had till then farmed out the education of their children with special needs to professionals in the space.

With the lockdown, the school shifted home and it was minus that professional teacher in person. “I had many parents reach out to me for guidance and suggestions,” she recalled.

Complicating the predicament is the fact that autism spans a range of disability (even extraordinary ability); you cannot generalise. Each child is unique. “There are some children who are flourishing in the new normal and some who are genuinely struggling,” Chitra said, about how autistic children are faring in the current scenario of COVID-19 and digital interface.

Parents Don Teacher’s Hat

Ever since the pandemic and the lockdown have set in, twelve-year-old Yashas has stepped out of his housing complex only very rarely. Mildly autistic and generally possessing a happy disposition, he has difficulty communicating. Yashas has been attending Bubbles Centre for Autism for over seven years. He has been homebound for a reason – if he contracts any infection, he won’t be able to communicate it properly.

Isolation (quarantine), done easily by others, can also be tough for an autistic child to execute. Yashas’      father, Shashidhar, takes him periodically to the terrace of their building for a dose of sunshine. “He loves his school. On the few occasions we ventured out of our housing complex, I took him by the school so that he knows it is still there,” Shashidhar, said.

Parents make special education work for kids amid COVID-19

In the days preceding the lockdown, Yashas would attend school and be looked after for the duration by the school’s teachers. While he was at school, his mother, Deepa, did voluntary work at a trust associated with Pragati Towards Livelihood. The first few weeks of lockdown were tough for the family. “Given the school was shut, I used to involve Yashas in some of the household chores so that he felt included and occupied,” Deepa said.

In April, on World Autism Awareness Day, the school engaged online with students and parents. The results were encouraging. Gradually, online classes commenced. For autistic children like Yashas, the primary emphasis in education is in helping them become independent. Academic curriculum, which      most students tackle, is in their case kept at a basic level.

Realizing Yashas’ enthusiasm for the new things he was doing around the house, his teachers incorporated similar exercises into their daily interaction with him. However, although he is happy to discover his school online, Yashas cannot login or manage the computer on his own. “I have to be with him throughout the school session,’’ Deepa, said.

Social Interaction Still Lacking

According to her, it is good that online education is available as an alternative in these times. But does it fully compensate for the loss of physical school? “No, I don’t think so. Social interaction is important,’’ Deepa said. The family recently acquired a puppy, which Yashas and his older sister, have grown fond of. It works as a stress-buster in times of restricted mobility and life indoors.

Chitra too agreed that online education cannot entirely replace school in the physical sense. Her son does not speak much; he communicates through typing. But he understands things well and therefore attends a regular school, which like all schools around has shifted to the virtual format. `“I know he misses social interaction,” she said.

At Bubbles, as the school got around to sensitizing the parents, the additional professional duties put pressure on the teachers. Under the old model, what counted in an educator were teaching skills and the ability to interact one-on-one with the children. It was mostly about the student.

In the virtual model, they were required to have digital skills and tutor parents too; the latter demanded a different set of communication skills and the appetite to engage with an older age group.

Parents make special education work for kids amid COVID-19

“Most of our teachers adapted but two or three, upon discovering their inadequacy, elected to leave. On the bright side, this virtual model has brought the child and the parent closer because they have to work together. There is also the fact that the menu-driven digital interface of virtual classrooms is a more predictable form of interaction for some students. It spares them the social anxiety that accompanies navigating the real world.

“The inadequacies of the virtual model are mainly two. First, with the physical classroom shut, social interaction outside of the family is limited. We can take comfort in the fact that everybody is in the same boat and we don’t know for sure what kind of world lies at the end of the pandemic tunnel  – whether it will have the old levels of socializing or not. Second, the workload on parents is high. They have their own office work, household work and errands to run besides helping a special child learn. They now have their hands full,’’ Sarbani said.

According to her, in the older age group that Pragati Towards Livelihood deals with, the pressure on parents is likely less because these students are more independent. Bharati Sharma has two sons – aged 20 and 18 – who are autistic and attend programs under Pragati Towards Livelihood.

“In my case, there has been some increase in workload due to the pandemic, but it is not a significant jump,’’ she said. At times, her sons can manage the digital interface required in the new normal on their own; at other times, she has to assist.

Ray Of Hope

As part of its vocational education program, Pragati offers courses in Digital literacy, Hospitality,  (F&B and Housekeeping) and Creative Arts (mosaic art, block printing and loom-based beaded jewellery). In the early days of the lockdown, alterations had to be made to training modules to compensate for the loss of physical classrooms; for instance, mosaic was substituted with paper for ease of teaching digitally.

With the national lockdown having since given way to phased unlock, the school has begun sending some of the materials across to the students. At both Bubbles and Pragati, parents are also being co-opted to monitor and evaluate the students’ work. At the time of writing, the evaluation process suited for the new normal was a work in progress.

Meanwhile, the relatively young Aadhar project has been doing online capacity building sessions with five NGOs, training them on how to teach children with special needs, as well as equip their parents to deal with the evolving situation. Of the said five NGOs, four are in rural areas and given mobile phone ownership isn’t widespread, the classroom survives still in the physical sense albeit not on the same scale as before.

IDFC FIRST BANK supports the Biswa Gauri Trust as a part of its corporate social responsibility mission. In partnership with Bubbles Centre for Autism, IDFC FIRST Bank has supported special education for the vulnerable group of children with disabilities from both urban and rural communities in Karnataka.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance writer based in Mumbai)