This article is part of a bimonthly series that will address early child development.
A new family has recently moved in across the street from me – their son Sarthak (name changed) has autism. One of his self-calming strategies is to moan (rather loudly). Since his preferred place to do this is on their home’s terrace, the entire neighborhood hears him.
Early reactions were extremely negative. Everyone commented about him and stared openly whenever he appeared on the street with his grandmother. Those living next door on either side began to harass the owners of the house where his family was tenant, insisting that they evict them.
My organisation stepped in then. We held a meeting in my garden with all the children of the area. We explained to them what autism is and why this child behaves as he does. We taught them the games he likes to play and asked them what they thought they could do to help him feel more accepted. The kids were enthusiastic – they responded eagerly, saying they had always wanted to play with him, but they didn’t know how; that since he couldn’t talk, they didn’t know where to begin.
But now they know! Now, whenever Sarthak appears on the street, children run to him and greet him by name. Two kids have begun inviting him to their home every weekend. So now, every Saturday and Sunday, he has friends to play with. Sarthak has become calmer and more engaged.
But a disturbing story was reported in the news this week – A 12-year-old boy with autism in Coimbatore was allegedly tortured by neighbours repeatedly. His mother told a news agency that the neighbours “put chappal garlands on him, tortured him with cigarette butts and even tried to choke him.” However, the Hindu reported on May 30 that the story may in fact be false and the family may have made it up.
But the reason it felt so believable in the days before the report came out, is because this kind of abuse of children with disabilities is in fact a routine reality. It is so common, that the Indian legal system has had to define what “abuse” of people with disabilities looks like, in the landmark legislation, ‘Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016.’
The act lists in heartbreaking detail the many ways it is criminal to treat people with disabilities: verbal humiliation, physical violence, sexual assault and withholding of bodily essentials. Even damaging the devices people depend upon because of their handicap was listed as a particularly egregious crime. Which makes you wonder who might want to do such a thing.
‘Child development’ is a neutral term. But children will develop into compassionate, responsible adults or into violent, abusive ones, depending on which road we adults lead them down.
As appalling as it is to acknowledge that such laws are necessary, the reality of the cruelty meted out to children and adults with disabilities is far worse. And in India, at least, the law is seldom acted upon – the parents of the 12-year-old mentioned above had apparently reported earlier incidents to the police with no action ever being taken. As is so often the case, India’s laws are progressive and admirable on paper, but shockingly weak in implementation.
Differences come in many forms – colour, nationality, religion, caste, gender identification, ability – but intolerance looks pretty much the same any way you slice it.
It is important to study and understand why so many people find it necessary to respond to “difference” with rejection, ostracisation, violence and other forms of cruelty.
Police, sociologists and psychologists cite many reasons for hate crimes, ranging from ‘thrill seeking’ which is in fact very common, to crusading for a religious or racial cause.
But two traits which most perpetrators share is that – overwhelmingly – they are male, and second, they have nothing to be afraid of. Hate crimes are usually committed by dominant groups against minorities: Hindus attack Muslims or Dalits in India, white men attack people of colour in the US and straight men attack gay people everywhere.
There appears to be a connection between a political leadership which is based on nationalism and division and an increase in hate crimes. Documenting Hate, a collaborative investigation tracking hate crimes and bias incidents in the US, draws a clear line between Donald Trump’s campaign and election and a sharp rise in crimes against black Americans and perceived Muslims there; here in India, researchers point out a rise in violence against Muslims since Narendra Modi came to power.
This phenomenon may shed some light on why abuse of children with disabilities is so common.
If adults take their cues from their national leaders, children take theirs from the adults in their lives. If children grow up imbibing a culture of hostility towards those who are different from them and taught through example that it is acceptable to humiliate, taunt and beat those who are vulnerable, when the opportunity to do so arises, why would they turn away?
How is it that the people abuse people with disabilities and find it acceptable to isolate a child who has difficulties? Because they themselves were physically beaten by adults or witnessed beatings by adults in their school or home environments.
Kids view the world with wonder, with clean slates and open minds. They are watching us all the time and they aren’t fooled by what we say: they judge based on what we do. Are we teaching them that it’s okay – even good – to isolate a child who has difficulties, to gang up on him and to hit him when he is down?
In the case of our new neighbour Sarthak, amazingly, even the grown-ups have climbed on board. They have watched their children accept him and they seem to realise now that Sarthak is just a child like any other, even like their own. I have seen neighbours call out to greet him when he goes up to the terrace and to smile with true empathy at his grandmother when she takes him out for a walk.
Our decision to work through the children was based on science, experience and intuition. I hope that in Coimbatore, New Delhi, Nagpur and Kashmir, others will also give the child-to-child approach a try.
From my experience, I believe that when we work with kids, we have a much better chance of succeeding. Children are problem-solvers by nature. They have not yet given up on the human race and they still have the energy and the drive to do what needs to be done. While adults make it complex, kids keep it simple.
Sarthak’s problems aren’t over and with love, determination and special training (developmental pediatrician Vibha Krishnamurthy calls it “Dil, Will and Skill”), we will continue to support him.
But when we win, and one day – I swear – we will, it will be because of other kids. It will be because of other kids who were taught that not fitting in is okay, that being different is not a death sentence and that it takes all kinds to make a world.