Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Visit to Academy for Severe Handicaps & Autism (ASHA)

The visit to Asha helped us understand how autistic children of different ages can be handled in a school system. The following are our observations:


Asha was begun in 1995 with only three students of approximate ages 6, 4 and 11. Although Asha now has three centres: 0-6 years (early intervention), 6-18 years and an adult centre, they first began with only the 6-18 centre. As diagnosis started becoming a possibility at a much younger age, there was a need to open an early intervention centre. While most children being enrolled in the beginning  fell into the middle bracket, the numbers changed over the years with more people beginning with the early intervention phase. The adult centre came about mainly because as the school expanded, the middle centre could not house all the older students and needed a place for them.


The early intervention centre focuses on teaching children the basics of daily life such as toilet training, etc. There is a lot of difference in the middle centre between a child who has gone through intensive early intervention as the one provided at Asha as compared to a child who hasn't. This centre handles around 20 students.

The middle centre also has a pre-vocational unit where the children are taught things such as sowing, block printing, data entry (they're apparently very good with computers), etc. This centre is the one we visited. It's quite like a normal school in its schedule and structure except for many modifications made suitable for teaching autistic children. This centre handles around 80 students. The teacher:student ratio here is 1:2. The fee structure for this school is a sliding fee structure.

The adult centre focuses on giving autistic adults an environment as similar to a work environment as possible. They don't have to wear uniforms, they come to centre and work on things such as stitching, printing, data entry, and other such activities that are tailored to each individual child's specific interests or abilities. They create products that can be sold and they even receive fixed salaries coming from the products at the end of the month. A few high functioning autistics go on to receive jobs such as data entry and some IT companies do accept one or two autistic children. The centre keeps adding to their provided activities depending on what each student is capable of. If a student is unable to fit into any of their provided activities, the centre identifies what the person is interested in and make provisions for his preferred activity. The oldest student is around 30 years old. This centre handles around 20 students.

Division of Students at the Middle Centre:

The children are divided into around eleven classes - labeled A to K. They're segregated based on ability and not age, but they do try to stick to a wider age bracket of around 2-3 years. There are however some exceptions that are determined solely by abilities. They stick to around 6 children and 3 teachers per class. There is an orientation period at the beginning of the year for the faculty to understand which class a certain child belongs to and also for the children to get used to the faculty.

Activities, Programmes and Schedules at the Middle Centre:

The middle centre provides a whole range of therapies: OT, Vocational Therapy, Speech Therapy, music, dance, yoga. The school works 10-5, 5 days a week. Some students stay for shorter sessions from 10-1. The day is divided into two halves - academic activities in the morning session and vocational training in the afternoon. Before class begins in the morning, the students are made to do exercises - playing with hula hoops, running races, catch-and-throw games, etc. Some of these - such as the lemon and spoon race are also being practiced for their upcoming sports day. The school organizes annual events such as a sports day as well as theme-based annual days. The school usually tries identifying and a student's interest/skill by the age of 13-14 so that they can build upon it.

The academic classes address primary subjects: English, Math, EVS, Science. Each of the subjects address a particular topic for a prolonged period. For example, one class was learning about auto rickshaws and other motor vehicles and they're going to be concentrating on that for a month. Another class which is preparing for 3rd Standard Exams of Open Based Education, a simpler level of NIOS exams (Read about NIOS), was studying weather and climate and would be studying that for two weeks or so. For each and every topic, the teachers create visual aids of different sorts to use in their lessons. For example, a Solar System model was made out of thermocol to teach the children visually. For the weather and climate topic, the students were required to maintain a scrapbook of collected weather reports. They usually try covering an average of 2 topics per month and hold monthly tests and even provide yearly reports.

Facilities at the Middle Centre:
  • There is an open area on the ground floor where morning activities, exercises, etc are carried out. There are labels for the different classes on the walls so that students can place their bags in the areas assigned to their class. One pillar is textured. There is also a merry-go-round and a swing.
  • The building has four floors accessible by stairs with double railings along the walls. There is also an elevator but it is only used for children who develop a fear of height or stairs. 
  • The first floor is used mainly for administrative purposes, the second and third for classrooms and the fourth, which is like a closed terrace, for pre-vocational training. 
  • The second floor has a dining hall and a computer room. The dining hall is used mainly to teach the students how to eat in a group, eat neatly, not throw their food around or at others, etc. The computer room is used to teach students how to use the computer since most seem to be good at this and it will prepare them for vocational activities such as data entry.
  • The third floor has mostly classrooms.
  • All of the floors have bulletin boards where they display students' work.
  • The vocational area has facilities for different activities: sowing machines, computers, slate boards, supplies for handicrafts - pottery, clay statues, etc.
  • Each room has a communication board on which there are labels such as "I like" or "Yes" or "No" so that the students can point to these labels and use them to aid communication. Additionally, each child is given a personalized communication book early on with pictures of all of their favorite things and necessary communication to carry around with them. Furthermore, everything in every room is labelled - doors, shelves, etc.
  • Bulletin boards in every classroom are filled with various charts to aid lessons. But they also have day schedules and calendars and timetables for individual students with a small "Finished" bucket below it so the child puts his name-tag into the finished bucket when he has successfully completed an activity. Also, pictures of themselves doing activities such as brushing their teeth so that the students understand that they have to perform those activities. Also, class rules are put up on the boards.
  • Each classroom consists of desks, shelves, chairs and cupboards for storage.

The middle centre consists of about 75 faculty members: therapists - vocational, occupational and physio; and special educators, many of whom are parents themselves. They would ideally like to have visiting doctors: a psychiatrist, neurologist, pediatrician and dentist. They would also ideally like to have a 1:4 ratio of teachers to students, hoping to increase independence of the students.

Parent Training:
Asha endeavors to train parents to care for their autistic children. Awareness and understanding of what autism really is is the main issue. Parents require instruction oh how to help their child because a child cannot receive the kind of personalized, focused attention he receives at home at school. Asha provides a two-month training programme for parents of which the initial few sessions consist mostly of theoretical learning. They are also trained to structure lessons and study schedules at home and also to plan and write out reports of their children's development.

Attempt at Social Skills Programme:
Since these children haven't much contact with neurotypicals apart from parents and teachers, Asha once tried a social skills programme on Saturdays where the neurotypical siblings of students would volunteer and spend time at Asha for a day so that the students get to interact with neurotypicals closer to their age. They plan to try this programme out again in the summer.

Changes They'd Like:
If they moved into a new facility, they would like the following:
  • Definitely more space; larger classrooms that could allow for individual as well as group activities.
  • Ideally enough space to sit on the floor.
  • Furniture that can be moved/folded out of the way to manipulate the space.
  • Visual planning: lots of space on the walls for bulletin boards and the like.
  • Concealed switchboards and generally minimizing sharp edges.
  • A visiting psychiatrist, neurologist, pediatrician and dentist.
  • A 1:4 teacher to student ratio
  • Male faculty as well as younger faculty.
  • A residential space for different conditions: single parents of autistic children, aging autistic people, etc.

All in all, Asha is a great facility with many exclusive provisions for autistic children and highly specialized care.

Ruchika Nambiar

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