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By Tahiat-E-Mahboob

The word 'normal' sounds so…normal doesn't it? We use it all the time. The doctor probably told your mother and father you were completely normal when you first came into the world. They say this in case of most children. Too bad all doctors don't get to see how the children they delivered grow and develop over the years. Too bad many doctors don't realize that the normal child they delivered is now no longer normal- the word now used to describe them is 'special'.

Yes, I'm talking about children, special children, autistic children. What is autism? It is a mental impairment. Autistic children are mentally and thus socially handicapped. Their biggest impairment is that they cannot function socially. By socially we simply mean interacting with people, even parents, not talking even when there is nothing wrong physically with their vocal chords, not making eye contact, not indicating what they want in any way, and in worst cases showing alarming degrees of violence often self-inflicting. In Down syndrome, it is the unbalanced number of chromosomes that causes the impairment. But Down syndrome children if given enough time and effort, do learn to speak, to communicate and to acquire basic social skills. Autistic children on the other hand may never learn how to do any of these things in spite of many efforts. Autism is an impairment that most parents aren't even aware off. In Bangladesh, the knowledge is almost none existent. And by the time a lot of parents understand what their child is facing, it is too late. For those who realize it in the early years there are only two or three institutes you can go to for help. Step-By-Step (in Lalmatia)is one of them.

This is a school that opened in 1990 and is owned by three people: Ms. Tasmima Hossain (Chairperson), Ms. Rehana Ashraf (Executive Director) and Ms. Sahara Ahmed (Headmistress). The school opened with two sections: a regular English Medium School and a Centre for Autistic Children.

The reason for opening such a centre was that Dhaka did not have any such school where parents could send their autistic children to for special education. Ms. Sahara Ahmed herself was a social worker who had many dealings of such instances. And with the aim of helping autistic children develop socially, this centre was opened. Over the thirteen years above fifty children have passed out of this centre and gone onto lead normal lives. And there are thirty children now in the school autistic centre. Every year, on an average three to four children get transferred to regular schooling or move to other schools. There are currently six teachers employed to the special needs lasses. Some are psychology graduates while others are clinical psychotherapists. The children are assessed according to their IQ level (not proper IQ tests but simple functioning tests) and are helped to develop verbal, cognitive and social skills. They are in the age group of three to thirteen. Autism can't be detected before the age of two and a half so parents who realize their children's state can earliest take action when the child is three years old. The proper term for this impairment is Spectrum Autism Disorder. During a discussion with three of Step-by-Step teachers Ms Syeda Ali (Special Needs), Ms Fahmida Iqbal (Special Needs) and Ms Taj Farhana Nooruddin (Administration), the teachers explained that if children in the special needs class room were seen to develop and get the grasp of the asks being taught, eventually they were transferred to regular schooling. The children have their own specially decorated classrooms where separate classes are held but they do get to mingle with children from the regular school section during rhyme classes, TV classes and on the playground. Classes are held from 8.30 to 11.30 five days a week and are divided by age. Things are taught keeping in mind their degree of understanding and adjustment. Some children adjust easily others don't.

For people who have mentally challenged children, Step-By-Step is a great place to start. Having worked as a volunteer myself in the special needs class of step-by-step for three months, I know what children, parents and teachers go through to fight autism. This is a truly well designed program and above all Step-By-Step has made a difference in the lives of many children and their families and will keep on doing so in the future. Hats off to Step-By-Step for their great work!

An Experience That Changed My Life

There is one other thing I love apart from work: children. Although I'd always been fond of children, I'd never really dealt with any. Thus when I decided to volunteer at Step-By-Step I knew I was taking a risk. I remember my first day. I walked into a small classroom with colourful desks and chairs. Children all between the ages of four to six surrounded the teacher. She smiled & asked me to sit down next to a boy called Anin. Unlike the other children who were occupied, Anin was crying. I coaxed him into sitting on my lap. I held him & sang a song to him from my childhood. After a while he stopped crying and wiped his nose with a corner of my dress. Then he looked up and smiled. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

From then on I faced a lot of challenges. The biggest challenge/risk was that I had to communicate with these children keeping my cool. It was frustrating because I felt helpless that I couldn't do something more for them. But I never showed signs of weariness. Even if I was upset, just by looking at the cherubic faces of my children (because that is how I think of them), my gloom disappeared. Looking back, I know that taking that emotional risk was the right thing to do. My experience has taught me to persevere, be patient and thank my lucky stars. Everyone isn't blessed with what I have. My experience has left me wiser. It taught me that life is too short to hold oneself back, to wallow in self-pity and to regret. Most of us are blessed with so many things and we tend to take them for granted never appreciating them while there are some in the world who don't have these blessings. Working with these children, I learned how to count these blessings. I tried to make a difference in their lives and they have certainly made a difference in mine. Although I am no longer with these wonderful children, every rainbow will remind me of their wonderful little faces, their angelic smiles- and for that I thank God for letting me have this opportunity. Thank you!






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