– Lipika Saharia
Three years ago when Pratim’s parents wanted to enroll him in PROGRESS, a programme for guidance and remedial support for students with learning disabilities, I was quite hesitant. By then I had dealt with slow learners who had difficulty in understanding language (reading, writing or concept), numbers, or had some behavioural problems but never a child with multiple disorder like Pratim. He had traces of moderate autism, mild dyslexia, speech problem, high attention deficit and hyper activity disorder with a destructive nature. He was four years old attending play group in a school. The first time his parents brought me to him, I told them I did not have the requisite ability to guide him, and hence I wouldn’t be able to take him. But the following night I could not sleep at all. His bright eyes, his rhythmic swinging movements, his poorly articulated words, and his restlessness kept on disturbing me. The next day, I called them and said I wanted to try although the only thing I could commit was that I shall try my best.
For the whole of the first year, his mother accompanied him. For me it was a real challenge to engage him in a particular activity for even five minutes. He never completed any activity. For one or two minutes he might do a few of the activities I had designed to improve his attention span, like putting seeds into a bottle, threading beads onto a string, colouring or making things with building blocks. But the very next moment everything would be scattered on the floor, or he would run away with high speed and both his mother and I would be running behind him to try and get him back to sit on the table! He liked to play ball but then he was more interested in throwing the ball outside the fence and laughing hysterically than actually having a systematic game of throw and catch. He was prompt in breaking things. It was nearly impossible to predict what destructive act he would do next. One moment of distraction, and the next thing you know, the flower pot is broken. Once he even broke a precious terracotta horse which happened to be my family’s favourite, even as his father and I were having a talk right next to him. One needed a lot of energy and patience to catch him and bring back to the working place. In the beginning, I was not able to follow his speech and had to take the help of his mother to understand what he was trying to say. Making him hold the pencil was another problem. Pratim had no focus while drawing lines and so an attempt to write an ‘A’ might just end up as a continuous line on my table cloth. Reward or punishment had no effect on him as he lacked emotions like fear and shame, and was indifferent to physical pain. But then slowly he started doing some activities like picture matching, joining the dots, flash card reading and also with difficulty, tried pronouncing some blended sounds. It was indeed a moment of celebration for us, when after seven months he completed a task in whole thirty five minutes without being distracted even once.
At the end of the first year Pratim could say some nursery rhymes, write a few letters, count up to ten and identify pictures of some fruits, vegetables and animals. In the school he would not play, and would keep disturbing the class and many a times enjoyed pushing and hurting others. By that time we decided to make him repeat the play group.
In the second year, Pratim used to come without his mother. He started accepting the fact that when he comes to me he has to do certain activities. Pratim had a good progress in academics. He learnt the alphabets, spellings of three-lettered words, counting up to fifty and somehow managed to write within lines even though he hadn’t stopped making the common confusion between his “b”s and “d”s. He could even recite a long poem and sang two songs in a school function. He liked to sing prayers and Bihu songs. Of course, except for a handful of people, others had problem in following his unintelligible speech. His hyperactivity reduced a little but nevertheless existed and the school authorities continued to complain now and then about his misdeeds. He picked up some slang words and kept using them often, breaking my nerves, I admit. He also had the annoying habit of screaming and yelling repeatedly, testing my level of patience. However, he was promoted from nursery to kindergarten as his performance was quite satisfactory.
In kindergarten, however, Pratim had real problems in coping up with the speed of teaching-learning. He had his own speed of learning which meant that he was always lagging behind in the class. This resulted in increased hyperactivity and destructivity. His teachers did not know how to manage him and on most of the school days he was given time out. He was put under medication; but the medicines made him loose his natural vitality and his eyes missed the spark. He would laugh maniacally and talk incoherently. Already he had thrown away the key of his father’s bike twice never to be found, broken their TV set thrice, and broken one heavy book shelf in his school. Those were the major damages to his credit, by the way. The list of the minor destructions, like a broken remote control, innumerable broken flower pots in my place itself, breaking a cellphone into two neat pieces; that list is unending.
Presently Pratim can do addition, knows spellings of five-lettered words, has improved a little in colouring (although he is unable to identify colours) and sometimes when he is attentive he solves puzzles real fast.
Having spent more than three years being constantly in touch with Pratim, being his teacher, his friend, even his entertainer at times (I have to sing and dance in front of him sometimes just to catch his attention), I have learnt a lot. I will not say I am an expert in handling special children, and neither do I have a professional degree in guiding them, but I guess what I feel for them can be summed up in my answer to a lady who once asked me this regarding Pratim: “How can you still be so sweet to such a brat?”
All I said was, “I don’t know… maybe because I love him”.
About the Author
Mrs. Lipika Saharia has been a teacher for almost thirty years, teaching in various schools, and has also served as founder Principal of Tezpur Gurukul in Tezpur, Asom. Right after taking voluntary retirement to start her own venture PROGRESS, Mrs. Saharia completed her B.Ed degree with specialization in Guidance and Counselling with first class, at the ripe age of fifty-five. Experience, however, has taught her more than the degree has. Teaching, she believes, is one continuous process of learning.
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