An invisible entity, a tiny virus has changed what we knew as normal. The lockdown in India brought everything to a standstill. The closure of schools and programs sent parents of those with special needs in a tizzy, and it sometimes seems that everything is in jeopardy. No doubt, within a crisis lies possibility and promise, and Autism Society West Bengal decided to use the strong ideas they have been learning to adapt and help students thrive. The Developmental Model, a major theme of Social Role Valorization theory, incorporates a number of broad principles which are likely to result in great learning for all people, including those with disability. This was an opportunity to put some of those ideas into practice.
To keep the teaching and learning process afloat, they began by providing online classes. Social stories were written, and visuals were prepared and circulated to all parents. But group teaching online somehow seemed to be missing the mark. The critical element of one-to-one interaction was missing, and they decided to individualize and personalize the approach to each student. Individualization and personalization is one of the hallmarks of a successful developmental approach, and this pushed them to individually design the learning path for each student.
A person-centered online approach with video calls was envisioned as a possibility. Individualized Education Plans (IEP) were reviewed and modified, and adapted for new ways to teach and learn, incorporating highly individualized, person-centered methods. Online classes started with the teachers bonding with their students virtually and individually. Fourteen-year-old Dipyaman’s teacher sent the program schedule for the first week, hoping it would be a success. The teacher sang his favorite songs with him and recollected their days in school, and both shared about how they were missing school. The teacher used social stories as he talked about the pandemic and how we all had to change our routines.
Then the teacher took Dipyaman on a virtual tour of his village, far away from Dipyaman’s home in Kolkata. Here, Dipyaman’s interest sharpened in amazement at the green open spaces, ponds, vegetables growing, cows in fields, and coconut trees. Fruits which he loved and saw only on the dinner table were growing in the trees—bananas, lemons, mangos. He saw and learned about bright hibiscus flowers in red, yellow, and pink. Concepts of color, shapes, animal types were seamlessly woven within these virtual tours. After this, Dipyaman was hooked on using technology to open new doors for learning.
Other teachers got involved, designing custom lessons with his favorite activities, incorporating occupational therapy goals seamlessly and in ways which appealed to him.
Dipyaman then joined group classes, and he was delighted to see his friends on screen. Keeping in mind the need for high levels of individualization, just four students connected in each class using WhatsApp as a platform. Family meetings were also arranged in a regular basis using Google Meet, and the students seemed reassured to see parents talking and laughing together. Families could share stories of all the unexpected achievements of their sons and daughters, and share ways to support the learning process.
So this “new normal” has turned out to be better than the “old normal” in terms of Dipyaman enjoying his online learning, and it brought in a level of individualization which could never be achieved otherwise. Dipyaman is truly thriving in this individualized set-up, and has a knack for technology no one knew about. During the one-on-one class, he was in control of his lesson and was not distracted readily. Later when he became a veteran during one-on-one classes, he was introduced to group classes starting with just two or three students. Everything seemed to have fallen in place.
The lockdown in the times of Covid-19 showed us not only can individuals with autism adapt to change, they can also make considerable progress. However, the necessary material supports and accommodations needed to be in place, and our mindsets as teachers must embrace the possibilities of person-centeredness. During these desperate situations in the times of Covid-19, this was an eye-opener. The high expectations demanded by the developmental approach were met and exceeded by the students of Autism Society West Bengal. Maybe it is just another example of the indomitable human spirit.