With schools shut, special children cut off from social skills training and therapy
Stakeholders point to the lack of digital access among many children and burnout among parents
Jacklene S. is a single parent of an 11-year-old. While the outbreak of COVID-19 turned life upside down for most people, for her, as the mother of a special child, it meant taking some desperate measures.
Her son, Joshua Vivan, is a non-verbal autistic child. Ms. Jacklene used to work as a teacher and drop him off at a special school before going to work, and pick him up later. But the pandemic meant that she remained out of work and unpaid as there was no provision for online classes in her school.
“It became very difficult for me as I couldn’t manage him at home. He became very aggressive, tearing clothes and hitting me. I could not control him as he was not ready to be at home,” she said.
With money running out, she took up a marketing job. With no external support, she started changing her child’s routine to sleep during the day, so she could step out for work, and return in time for his online classes.
“The special school gave him a tab and started an hour’s class in the evening. After that, he has started enjoying it,” she said.
Disruption in the academic year may be a big worry for mainstream school students, but for special children as well as their parents, it has meant the abrupt loss of a big support system in the form of special schools.
Sarbani Mallick, founder-director, Bubbles Centre for Autism, said, “Online classes has pushed them further into a comfort zone, which is conducive for them, but the social skill component is something which is not getting addressed at all. What about the social inclusion that we have been working on for years? It has gone out of the window.”
She highlighted two crucial issues in the current system: the lack of digital access among many of these children, as well as the burnout of parents. The former has led to dropouts, she said.
Shobha Sundar, Programme Director, OPD Services, Spastics Society of Karnataka said children with cerebral palsy and intellectual disability would prefer going to school, as keeping them engaged is a major challenge. “Going out, a change of place, getting fresh air – all of this is not happening. They are cooped up at home, and the demand on parents is huge,” she said.
Online classes also require a lot of creativity from special educators, she said. “Our teams and volunteers are finding ways to keep them interested. But there is some fatigue with online, and we are not doing it with very young children – below the age of six. We are giving programmes and tips to parents to keep them engaged through activities. But the children are missing out on physical therapy. The therapist is substituting it with an exercise online,” she explained, adding however that the tempo in participation from the lockdown days is coming down.
Preparing for reopening, the school has been training students to wear masks from the initial days. Services such as assessment and therapy have partially opened with adequate measures and individual sessions while the clinic has partially opened for visits, she said.