There is a certain charm in watching Vignesh, 6, and his father, Athavan, walk into weekly SAAAC sessions. Vignesh, like most boys his age, brims with excitement. At times he is energized by the possibility of learning, and at other times he uses that energy to get out of learning altogether. Athavan, like all fathers, tries to contain and channel the overflowing energy of his young son. At today’s particular session, Vignesh had just woken up from a nap before coming to the centre, and his crankiness was on full exhibition. Yet, Athavan prompted and prodded his son to join the dance lesson that was taking place. After getting his son to join the group, Athavan went and sat down on the side of the large room, periodically checking in to see if Vignesh was still engaged. This has been a scene that has been re-enacted by father and son for the past two years, and the strides made in Vignesh’s development has been phenomenal because of it.
The Athavan family came to SAAAC in 2010. Athavan and his wife Vathsala were young parents looking for ways to help their son, who was diagnosed with mild autism at the age of 2. “He wasn’t speaking and he was in his own world”, said Vathsala, whose gentle voice and demeanor betrays the enormous strength she possesses. Of the two, Athavan was the one who persisted in his denial of his son’s condition. “It was very difficult. I didn’t want to accept it and I thought he didn’t need all these therapies”. The parents became even more distressed when Vignesh’s school recommended that he be removed from his regular schooling and placed in more specialized classes. “I was heartbroken. I thought if he stayed in his regular classes he would pick up the normal behaviours of his classmates. I was afraid if he was removed he would continue with his disruptive behaviours”, said Athavan as he looked to the stage to keep an eye on his dancing son. Their arrival at SAAAC was met with skepticism by Athavan. He did not believe Vignesh needed such interventions. Yet Athavan and Vignesh came regularly, and Athavan’ skepticism soon began to dissipate. Vignesh and his parents became involved in a host of programs offered by SAAAC: from ABA therapy to music lessons to one on one social service guidance for parents. “Geetha and Biruntha [SAAAC personnel] helped us get important funding, so we could get private speech therapy sessions” said Vathsala graciously. In addition, a special bond formed between Neeran Kuni, SAAAC’s program director, and Vignesh. “He was one of the first kid’s I saw at SAAAC, and we instantly hit it off,” Neeran said remembering the past two years. Athavan feels like he owes a great deal of gratitude for Neeran’s guidance, “Neeran taught me how to handle Vignesh’s behaviours: when to be stern and when to be soft, how to evaluate special needs services and classes, and how to handle the general stress of situations involving Vignesh”, said Athavan. Within three years, Vignesh was able to start communicating and socializing with people around him. His reading skills have developed, and this past month Vignesh was able to return to regular schooling for certain subjects. It was such unbelievable news to Vathsala and Athavan, who felt such developments and milestones would be years away.
The reason for Vignesh’s continued development can be contributed to a host of factors. “There were many people helping us. From Vignesh’s school, to health professionals at different centres, to the great people at SAAAC. A lot of people had a hand in helping Vignesh along”, said Vathsala. But what Vathsala fails to mention are the proactive measures taken by herself and her husband. These were parents who voraciously looked for information about autism and services to help their son. They were not afraid to talk to anyone about where to seek help. Their ability to keep well informed along with faithfully implementing the measures recommended by SAAAC therapists and other health professionals has truly helped Vignesh reach his developmental milestones.
As the dance sessions winded down, Athavan readies Vignesh’s jacket, preparing to head back home. He is a father who, despite the challenges faced by raising a son with autism, continues to fight. There is a quiet strength underneath his rough exterior. He along with wife are extremely inspiring individuals. These are the families that SAAAC is made of.