After having lost my way twice, I finally reached the narrow lanes of Dnyanoday colony in Karve Nagar, thanks to Vidya. The sun was basking in glory, chasing us mortals into the shelter. It was Gudi Padwa, the Hindu New Year and I was looking forward to something as challenging as this. Challenging because, photographing and capturing children with special abilities in their natural states, without obstructing their schedules or distracting them from their day’s tasks, is not easy.
As I stepped inside the courtyard of All Stars, young voices singing the National Anthem met my ears, followed by the daily attendance.
‘Vinayak….Sopan…Yashraj…Sonal…Shreyansh…Om’ and the roll call continued. Swapna Shetty, the founder of All Stars joined me at the door and quickly briefed me on the activities lined up for the day. Sopan, Shreyansh and Vinayak went for a walk while Sonal, along with Vidya, entered the grocery store for shopping. What I saw, held me in awe. Sonal, effortlessly opened her tablet, started the Let’s Talk App and after a few quick options, ordered the grocer for a pack of chips, confidently.
You may say that I am exaggerating. No. I am not. How is this even possible? Answer – Years of training the children with mounds of patience and every ounce of understanding to build on their strong points.
More than 10 million children in India suffer from Autism Spectrum Disorder, shows the first ever survey conducted in India on Autism.
The concept of Autism is often met with raised eyebrows, mentality-caged misunderstandings laced with pity and ridicule towards the children suffering from it. To be honest, it is a common misconception that autistic children are mentally disabled. The truth is, they suffer from restricted development and need special attention to help overcome it.
All Stars – A forum for Children with Autism
Swapna with her son Shreyansh – Swapna’s vision is to build a residential program so that autistic kids can live with her and develop better
All Stars is the brainchild of Swapna Shetty, a single mother of an autistic child, who realized this harsh truth when she observed that her son’s development was delayed as compared to other kids of his age. Upon further investigation, Swapna’s son was diagnosed with Autism spectrum disorder. The schools in Pune and Mumbai weren’t suitable for the kid, and so, she decided to take it upon herself to home school him, not only in academics but also in primary, social, functional, motor and vocational skills. Special schools for Autistic children focus on developing their vocational abilities and not their practical skills. Swapna Shetty, the founder of All Stars, believes in molding the children in the comforts of their home.
To understand his needs better and devise methods of learning, Swapna underwent training on teaching children with special needs. On this journey, she met parents whose kids faced similar issues but wanted something good for their children in the long run. That is how All Stars was born. Swapna’s goal is to sensitize the masses about the concept of Autism.
All Stars is a For-Profit educational forum for autistic kids with an aim to make the children capable of developing a vocation of their choices later in their lives. Nestled in a calm and quiet locality in Karve Nagar, Pune, All Stars houses more than 20 kids. For the children, All Stars is the second home, and Swapna is their facilitator, teacher, shadow, friend and the most trusted person after their parents.
Children who have Autism are NOT mentally disabled. They’re socially awkward and find it difficult to communicate with the outside world, even their parents.
Autism in children often occurs in combination with visual impair, lack of motor abilities and inward social skills. Education at All Stars is all about first getting the parents comfortable with the child’s disability and then working on making the kids comfortable in the outside world.
Suchitra Thipse, mother of one of the kids at All Stars on Autism and development of children at All Stars
“It is a common myth that autistic children have excellent abilities like, being stalwarts at math or being brilliant at any form of arts. Autism is a spectrum. Children could be at any level in the spectrum. The ones at either end are being paid attention to, the most. My goal is to do something for the kids who fall in between these two extremes.” – Swapna
An autistic kid with visual disabilities completing his kitchen activity for the day
All the activities are primarily interactive. In the sense that, the children are made familiar with tasks they find difficult, using pictures, music, rhymes, and voices. Mothers and shadow teachers often accompany their kids. The curriculum involves learning the texture of letters, sounds, and building upon the strength areas. Through a series of activities and signages, children at All Stars are free to choose what activity they want to indulge in, helping them shape their talents into entrepreneurial vocations for their future.
Sonali Ahire: Shadow teacher at All-Stars
The concept of Autism is widely misunderstood, and the subsequent behavior of people towards the victims closes the doors of healing for them. Eradication about this defect still has a long way to go, but as a part of the society, we can all start with remembering one thing that, being Autistic is not being mentally retarded. They are individuals with needs separate from ours. Swapna is doing her bit in helping the children pull their lives together, but as the ‘privileged lot’ it is out moral duty to help differently-abled people in every way we can, rather than mocking and making them a topic of ridicule.