Communication as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior.” Humans do not communicate with each other using just speech; we communicate through several mediums: gestures, postures, facial expressions, speech, written script, pictures, and several more. Speech is one of many such modes of expressing our thoughts and feelings. What of individuals who do not communicate using speech but prefer communicating through the other communication modes? They have thoughts, feelings, and opinions, too – but all too often, their voice is buried in the assumption that they have none to offer.
Padma Jyothi and Chitra Paul are the editors of the much-acclaimed book Talking Fingers. They are also moms of non-speaking autistic young men. Padma’s son is Anudeep, a 21-year-old, and Chitra’s son is Tarun, a 17-year-old. The Jhalak presented here is about their creative experience, from the birth of an idea to the release of the book. The book gives expression to the voices of non-speaking autistic adults; voices often lost in the cacophony of speech.
This Jhalak retains the first-person account of Padma’s and Chitra’s experience:
We met almost two decades ago while doing a course and since then we stayed close and often discussed our thoughts. During one such discussion, the topic was about books written by autistics and how much they have guided and inspired us. We were surprised by the lack of such books in India and decided to do something about it. It was an ambitious dream, and we learned a great deal during the journey. First was the process of finalizing the sixteen co-authors for the book. We went with ones who were already well known for their blogging, art, and poetry. Some of them were recommendations from reputed professionals in the field. Then we were faced with the harsh reality that none of the reputed publishers were willing to take a chance and publish the book. Undeterred, we decided to self-publish the book. We came up with some questions and added a few more recommended by Ms. Archita Basu as we wanted to present the authors with the best we could offer.
We wanted to try something different with our book. The title of the book is recommended by our sons. The foreword of the book is written by Chammi, a non-speaking autistic advocate from Sri Lanka. The format of the book is also novel. Instead of the essay type format normally seen in this genre of books, we went with Q and A format and additionally the questions and their responses are listed chapter wise. Each chapter is all about the question and the responses of the authors. We retained their voice and style of writing and their unedited responses. This way the entire spectrum of their views on a topic can be read in a chapter.
After publishing the book in late August, the response took us totally by surprise. It was overwhelmingly positive and encouraging for the authors, and many parents and professionals were viewing non-speaking autistics in a completely new light. Many parents of younger autistic children also reached out to express their gratitude for helping them understand their children better and sought resources and support for their autistic children to reach their full potential. For many people, including people totally unconnected to autism, the book was eye-opening, forcing them to rethink their own understanding of autism itself. There is an active effort to include autistics here in India into the larger world neurodivergent community, too.
Our future plans include a Hindi translation of the book so that it reaches maximum people across the country, as well as a second edition which will feature a few updates. The impact this book has on young parents as they embark on their journey as parents of non-speaking autistics is immense; just imagine how the lives of these young children will blossom as they receive the necessary support and encouragement. We want our Talking Fingers family to grow as we continue this book as a series.
In the words of our good colleague, fellow All-India Social Role Valorization network leader, and parent-activist Mr. Anand Kumtha:
“This book is going to be a game changer. A lot of people believe that a non-speaking autistic person is a non-thinking person. This book of honest and insightful writings surely bursts that myth. And it does much more than that. This is possibly the first Indian book in which the voices of many autistic persons are heard together as first-person narratives. They are responding to twenty awesomely perceptive questions by the two editors, baring their lives and lived experiences, strengths and vulnerabilities, thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams, insights and values…
I have read the book just about twice; I’ll surely be reading it many more times! The book is food for thought; at the same time emotionally moving.”