By Sriya Narayanan

Note: Please see the note below about the photos. – Editor

He was labeled a serial trouble-maker and a boy practically incapable of being a classroom-learner. He was repeatedly bounced around between schools for getting into mischief. “It came to a point where he didn’t want to go to school anymore. This is when the parents heard of us and brought him here,” says Niraja S, Chief Psychologist at Saraswathi Kendra Learning Centre. The boy she is referring to is Vignesh*, a child she holds up as a prime example of what happens when a ‘difficult’ label sticks.

Niraja and the devoted teachers of Saraswathi Kendra work hard at making learning accessible and conducive to the special needs of children on the autism spectrum, those with speech and motor delays, and also children with deep-seated behavioural issues or phobias. The staff uses a wide range of techniques including the critically acclaimed therapy dog programme that recruits rescue dogs from the Blue Cross of India, to be a medium between these children and the rest of the world. Boys like Vignesh, who find the mainstream school environment unable to provide what they need, find themselves at Saraswathi Kendra, in the hopes that their learning journey can continue uninterrupted.

Far from treating students as ‘problem children’, the Saraswathi Kendra Learning Centre recognizes that they are simply children with unique challenges – and tremendous talents and abilities – that are deserving of our attention, patience and time. Niraja notes that creating a space of safety for children is one of the top priorities – evidence of which is seen in the gregarious affection that the children show for each other in the form of moral support and warm bear hugs, though the latter has not been possible since the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Alongside the child’s development, they also work closely with parents who battle challenges of their own – both in terms of their worry for the child’s academic prospects and also in terms of varying communication styles that are called for in these situations. This includes a parents’ support group, the option of private sessions with the psychologist, and in some cases, simply drawing their attention to the positive impact they’ve had on their children which they have not paused to congratulate themselves for. The psychologist also coaches parents about the power of positive reinforcement on a daily basis and works to normalize special education centres and the consulting of child psychologists in general. “We have to make people understand that these are perfectly acceptable things,” says Niraja, of the heartening trend in this direction.

In the first meeting with Vignesh’s family, Niraja learnt that the boy had an unhealthy fascination for insects, and that he would run after them constantly, often to the detriment of his studies. The then nine-year-old’s anxious eyes would frequently dart upwards to the ceiling when a spider crawled by. Niraja, who had a hunch early on, that there was more to it than a case of ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder), recommended that he join the learning centre, and was determined to get to the root of the boy’s issues rather than take his earlier diagnosis at face value. She recalls Vignesh hiding behind his mother that day, terrified at the prospect of yet another unfamiliar environment.

Fortunately for him, this wasn’t the type of organization that treated both children and tests as standardized units. The Doctor Dog programme, for example, is designed to improve a child’s language and motor skills, while also giving them a chance to speak freely about the pressing issues that they often grow up with, hidden from everyone they know. “They would say ‘Ruffles (the dog) is listening to us’ and they’d end up talking to him about many things that they have never expressed, even to their parents, teachers or peers,” says Jayanthi S, teacher and special educator, referring to one of the furry team members from the Dr Dog programme who recently passed away. What follows after the occasional hesitation from children is a colourful eruption of conversation interwoven with stories, songs and secrets, and a human-canine bond that transcends the need for verbal responses. Today, the resident doctor is Tulsi, a mongrel with a gentle soul, who underwent significant physical abuse before being rescued by the Blue Cross of India. Tulsi the survivor pays it forward by bearing witness to the intensely private agonies of special needs children.

Alongside the therapy dog programme, Niraja also conducts daily ‘Circle Time’ in the Sensory Room with the students, by gathering them in a group to enhance self-esteem, motor and sensory skills: a time when they are free to be themselves, minus the trap of the ‘should-and-must’ environment that so often threatens a child’s very sense of self.

She observes that diagnoses such as learning disability could sometimes cause children to internalize society’s misconceptions about their abilities and future prospects. “A child who is currently unable to write might be better at expressing their thoughts through storytelling, music or art, for example,” she says, noting that the key is to shower them with motivation and encourage them to make baby steps towards their other goals. “Creativity comes with freedom,” she says, revealing that a culture of unhealthy competition and comparison, while dangerous for all young people in general, is particularly damaging to a child with special education needs. It leads to them masking their pain which sometimes manifests in anger or rebellion – things that are further misunderstood by society.

Vignesh’s story was a case in point. In his early days at Saraswathi Kendra, Vignesh’s emotional distress played out in the form of almost daily outbursts. He frequently grabbed his classmates’ things and flung them out the window, watching eagerly for any kind of reaction. His artwork for class, while highly creative, had tinges of violence in every frame. Instantly recognizing his behaviour as a misguided cry for attention, Niraja made it a point to look for him every morning at the assembly and acknowledge his presence specifically. “That one glance gave him what he needed,” she recalls with a smile. Vignesh also participated, albeit half-heartedly at first, in group therapy and pet therapy. Over a period of time, he began to wander over to Niraja’s office to peep at her shyly while she was at work at her desk.

“It took a long time to build that rapport,” she admits, adding that on many occasions, she stayed back after hours to watch over his homework. Students and teachers alike continued to praise, applaud and acknowledge him during group sessions. Niraja simultaneously gave him an exercise in empathy when she informed him that every time he willfully damaged another child’s property, the same thing would need to be done to him by the aggrieved child in return. The cumulative impact of this multi-pronged approach led to Vignesh gradually and permanently abandoning his disruptive behaviour. Further, the more he became engrossed in academic pursuits, the less he seemed to care about the insects around him. His handwriting graduated quickly from barely decipherable scribbles to legible, fluent sentences that showed delightful literary flourishes and a fertile imagination.

“All that remained was the insects,” says Niraja, referring to the only problem that had improved considerably but still lingered. One day, in a freewheeling conversation about everyday things with Niraja, Vignesh began to open up about how he was bullied in the past, and how he became an easy target for blame, once the ‘trouble-maker’ label stuck. The young boy revealed how it led to him displaying bullying behaviour himself.

“Finally, as we delved deeper into his difficult past, he mentioned overhearing a conversation years ago between his grandparents at home. They were chatting casually about how termites tend to eat up everything. In his innocent mind, he translated that to mean that they were in his home, coming for his toys, the roof over his head, everything! This led to him wanting to go after insects. I was able to convince him that termites are a manageable problem if and when they do occur,” says Niraja. She encouraged Vignesh to observe insects in their natural habitat and see the wonder of their beauty rather than being afraid of them to the point of obsession. She also managed to trace the characters in his violent drawings to an unpleasant experience he had experienced as a child when he visited a local Horror House for kids featuring spooky creatures.

“Diagnoses require deep work,” she says, referring to how seemingly small incidents can imprint themselves on impressionable minds, leading to a negative impact later in their lives. Vignesh, finally free of his mental burdens, soon began to create magical art that was about reconciliation and heroism. His comics today often feature his loving grandfather who recently passed away.

“Vignesh has incredible potential,” says Niraja, proudly displaying a thick sheaf of papers that contain pages and pages of his original writing, adding that the boy is now, at age 11, a gifted and confident orator as well. “The tag he was given was ADHD,” she says. “Rather than focusing solely on these labels and discounting a child’s unique experiences, we should look at them as individuals, human beings and most importantly, as souls. That’s the only way our own eyes will open up to what a child is capable of”.

* Names and certain other identifying details changed to protect the privacy of the child

Note: The photos were taken earlier before the pandemic. Now Saraswathi Kendra has re-opened again after covid. When it is open, masks and vaccinations are required.

Photos: Sharon St Joan

The Saraswathi Kendra Learning Centre is run by the Ramaswami Foundation, in Chennai, India – a charity that Forest Voices of India, a U.S. based organization, helps support.

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