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     Volume 7 Issue 14 | April 4, 2008 |

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Finding the Rainbow

Srabonti Narmeen Ali

It is a simple fact that we are all born different. And although we learn, as we get older, to embrace our uniqueness, as children we often try desperately to cover up whatever it is that makes us stand apart from the crowd. It is relatively easy for most children to do so, but there is a significant percentage of children who cannot hide their dissimilarities. Those who have disabilities, be they physical or mental, cannot help but be different. In a country like Bangladesh where any hint of such disabilities is considered taboo and people with mental illnesses are written off as 'crazy', there is very little scope for those unfortunate children who suffer from conditions which affect brain development, such as autism.

Autism, a neurological disorder, can be detected in children between the ages of zero (from when they are born) to the age of three. It affects the way a child interacts and also communicates with others. In addition, very often, it affects the child's learning and motor skills, making it difficult for them to be educated alongside their peers. Their learning capacity is at a slower pace than most other children, thereby making it near impossible for them to learn things as quickly. As a result, most autistic children are either sent to specialised schools, home schooled, or in some cases, not schooled at all -- a reality that the Anandaniketon European School (ANES), an English medium school located in Dhanmondi, is trying to change.

ANES is a school of about 120 children, the oldest of them being taught at the Class VI level. What makes this school particularly unique, however, is the fact that 10% of the students in the school suffer from mental disabilities such as autism. And contrary to the norm, these special children are not taught in a classroom separate from the others, but rather together with the other children in their age group. In a class of 20 there are usually no more than two or three children with disabilities. Each of these children have one teacher dedicated to teaching them so that even though they may not literally be on the same page as their classmates, they are still getting the experience of learning side-by-side.

"There is actually a policy on the government level stating that 10% of the children in every school should be special ed children," says Principal Shamse A. Hasan, "but unfortunately most schools do not implement this policy into their school systems. Right now we have 20 students who are special ed -- 16 of them are autistic and four of them have learning disabilities, such as dislexia."

The special ed children at the Anandaniketon European School are taught alongside their peers, with one teacher per student, so that they can get the experience of learning in a classroom with other children rather than being isolated

By the time Hasan founded ANES in 2003, she had already acquired ample experience in the field of education. Her previous job at Gono Shahajya Shangstha (GSS) entailed the organisation of primary schools for underprivileged children all over Bangladesh. In addition, Hasan also worked as an elementary school teacher in England, which was where she was introduced to the philosophy of a different kind of teaching.

"I find that the students in many of our schools are put under a lot of pressure to be up to the standards," says Hasan. "They are not encouraged to learn at their own pace. This is why at my school I have made a huge effort to create an environment in my classrooms which is unusual, but in my experience, much more conducive to learning.

"The curriculum at this school is government-based but each student learns according to their own ability. We want to make a situation where these children actually enjoy learning and want to learn. The whole theory is that learning should be interactive, enjoyable and child-centred."

However, in order to successfully construct such an environment Hasan feels that the first thing that needs to be done is properly train the teachers so that they are able to provide a non-threatening environment for the children -- especially those with disabilities.

"It is really important to improve the standard of teaching," says Hasan, "because right now there are major flaws in the way many people teach. In our culture, we have a very strict way of teaching which often does not work in making the child comfortable, especially when you are dealing with autistic children. It is definitely a struggle. Many of our teachers may not feel totally comfortable getting too friendly with the special ed children because they are usually prone to being disruptive. They think along the lines that discipline takes precedence over being friendly and understanding. That proves to be very difficult because most people are not exposed to children like this and it makes it all the more harder for us to bring these children up to a mainstream level."

Despite such obstacles five autistic students at ANES have started learning at a standardised level, something that is not always possible when the child is learning at a specialised school.

"I do not necessarily think that specialised schools are a good idea," says Hasan, "because I feel that kids who are not incorporated into the outside world will not be able to deal with the outside world as successfully. And if these children are in a school for autistic children, they will not have any positive role models or even peers.

"I also think that the other children in the school are also learning very important skills. They learn to take responsibility for the autistic children, try to include them in games, they learn to be patient with them and understand that they are different and be sensitised to that. Most of all they are taught that these children are a part of our school and also a part of society."

Despite the fact that society usually shuns such children as a result of ignorance and lack of exposure, Hasan has been pleasantly surprised to see that most parents have, although initially slightly apprehensive about their children being alongside autistic children all day, been very understanding and tolerant.

"Perhaps it is because they realise how lucky they are to have a child that doesn't suffer like these other children," says Hasan. "Something which I think we are all reminded of every day, which makes me feel like I have a social responsibility to help those who are less fortunate than I am."

It is important for all of us to recognise how lucky we are -- to be able to wake up every morning and get dressed by ourselves, to communicate what we want when we want it, to be able to laugh at a joke, to understand a conversation, to eat without the help of others -- things that most of us take for granted, are a struggle for all those people around the world who suffer from autism. In most cases autistic children are alienated from society and rejected from schools catering to the "normal, up-to-standard" child. However, schools such as ANES prove that it is possible for them to be incorporated into every day society, and may even have semi-normal lives. It is all a matter of effort and rising up to the challenge of making sure these children get a chance of living life to the fullest.

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