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     Volume 7 Issue 29 | July 18, 2008 |

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A Very Special Child

Hana Shams Ahmed

Sonata: A Story of Autism (2007)
Director: Sentu Roy
Producer: Haider Chowdhury
Co-producer and Editor: Sagheer Faiz

Being different is a burden in all societies. So it does not come as a surprise when the protagonist's neighbour in 'Sonata: A Story of Autism' reveals one day that she has a younger brother who is kept locked up in a room away from other people. The brother it turns out is a mentally disabled boy, who instead of getting treatment is kept socially excluded, worsening his condition.

Sonata is the story of a mother Rola who discovers that her son Tamzeed, who is the pride and joy of her in-laws' family because of his gender, is not quite 'normal'. This discovery, in a country where there is immense prejudice surrounding mental illness, is a devastating one for Rola. Neither she, nor her family, has ever heard of autism. When, at eight months, Tamzeed's doctor tells Rola that he has autism, the whole family is at a loss about how to deal with it. So when she gets a scholarship to New York University, Rola grabs the opportunity, knowing that she might have a chance to get good treatment for Tamzeed in America.

Autism is a complex brain disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 150 children are diagnosed with it. No such statistics exist for children in Bangladesh. In most cases in Bangladesh, the disorder is regarded as a mental health problem and no treatment is made available for children. Since 2000, two organisations were founded by parents of autistic children to treat the disorder. When Tamzeed was born in 1999 there were no such institutes. Children with autism need constant stimulation, with colours and music and social interaction, to open up their minds and make them more aware of their surroundings. In mainstream schools, they receive none of that, and further recoil into their own secluded world.

In New York Tamzeed gets constant care at his school -- from speech therapists, physical therapists, behavioural analysts and occupational therapists. One day, very much by accident, he discovers his calling. His parents are shocked when eight-year-old Tamzeed starts playing the grand piano at a friends' house. He had never seen a grand piano in his life, let alone received any formal training in it.

Tamzeed is lucky. He had parents who actively helped him overcome his barriers to lead a 'normal' life. He was lucky he did not have to grow up in a cruel and prejudiced society. In 'Madness and Civilization' Michel Foucault follows a historical trail from the Middle Ages to the 19th century on how socially excluded people were treated in Western Europe -- from lepers to 'mad' and 'unreasonable' people. Many people with autism and any behavioural tangents are no better in our society today from the lepers of the Middle Ages. Many parents hide their children in locked rooms and those who come out have to face cruel stares and taunting. Most don't receive any treatment at all. But hidden behind every autistic child is an undiscovered potential. More awareness, perhaps through such informative documentaries as 'Sonata', might lead to a better understanding of people who are 'not quite like us'.

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