By Chenelle Fernando
World Autism Awareness Day 2019 took place on 2 April and this was exactly when we met the lovely ladies, the Founders of Reach Beyond – Autism and Child Development Centre.
They had just got back after an empowering day of celebration by touring around Colombo with the kids that attend their centre, all whilst raising awareness to the cause.
Reach Beyond was founded and is run by four strong ladies: Malathi Kahandaliyanage (former Dubai school of Autism Assistant Head Teacher, special educator, behaviour therapist, Member of the Sri Lanka Association for Child Development, facilitator at “learning to play” workshops at Lady Ridgeway Hospital, Member of the Multidisciplinary Team in the capacity of a behaviour therapist at Ragama Hospital), Nelun Guruge (Ashyaki Holdings (Pvt.) Ltd. Director, Board Member NEST – a non-profit organisation for women with mental health issues), Tharsiny Markandu (BASc in Electrical Engineering and Engineering Science from University of Toronto and Diploma in Special Needs Education from Ladies’ College Department of Vocational Studies), and Samantha Willatgamuwa (former Nestle Lanka PLC Brand Manager, MSc [Ind.] and BSc [Ind.]in Food and Nutrition, MSc in Applied Psychology [UK], Diploma in Special Needs [SL], Diploma in Consumer Intelligence [SL]). They are individuals who opted to take a complete 180-degree turn from their usual lifestyle, not only for the betterment of their own children who required special care and attention, but to act as a guiding light for all kids who are autistic and require that extra support.
What is autism?
Autism spectrum disorder, as the name suggests, affects the three main areas of communication, behaviour, and social interaction. On the face of it, children may showcase characteristics such as the lack of speech and the lack of eye contact. This, however, goes way beyond that to various other characteristics. The lack of social skills being one, Markandu said: “Parents don’t pick up on the lack of social skills, but on the lack of eye contact and repetitive behaviour.”
Considering the wide-ranging spectrum, the characteristics each child portrays could be varied, requiring one to proceed with special and individualistic attention to each child. “Every child is like a fingerprint and no fingerprint is the same. Each child is different and to get the best for each child, one has to understand the child and then work out what is needed,” added Willatgamuwa. Speaking on well-known personalities such as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and even Bill Gates who were autistic, Markandu explained how they were intelligent despite their social skills issues. This isn’t the case with all autistic children. As she indicated, around 31% of the people on the spectrum also have intellectual disability.“They might not talk or engage with you at all, so there’s a huge range,” she added.
“None of our kids show facial features of any difference, which means, looking at your own child you’d think ‘no this cannot be autism’ because it doesn’t look like what it is perceived to be”, suggested Kahandaliyanage, stating how due to this, certain parents might not come to terms with the situation from the get-go.
According to Markandu, Reach Beyond is a one-stop show where autistic kids and children with special needs would receive a holistic intervention. The holistic intervention is where the child is taught about self-awareness, awareness of others, and how they engage with others, focusing mainly on a play-based approach.
“Parents still want their children to talk, read, write, and get through academics. You need to focus on the whole person, social skills, and emotional understanding. Unlike in regular schools where you’d give a child a story and question them on the story, here, it’s all about how we question the child,” explained Markandu. We immediately understood that this was what distinguished Reach Beyond from that of the regular school setting they work, within the child’s strengths whilst understanding their limitations.
The centre works towards accommodating needs of kids from the age group of two to around 16. Their morning services function around a play-based system for early-aged children. Children within the group of two to three years of age fall within the junior group which involves learning through play while three to five years of age marks the introduction of academics as this is where structure begins to come in.
Emphasising on academics, Kahandaliyanage explained: “When you say academics, it’s not ABC; it involves questions such as ‘what is your name?’ and ‘what is the first letter of your name’?”
Kids within the category of five to nine years are presented with a school readiness programme. Understanding the variation within the spectrum, the centre has in place a programme for children who showcase high-intensive behaviour, hence might not be ready to be in a group. They will be provided with one-on-one therapy whilst always having one teacher constantly working with the kids.
The afternoon services are support-learning for those who go to school. Here, they provide tailor-made after-school programmes ranging from the ages of two to three years and 15-16 years. This is an individualised education plan (IEP) which is designed with the understanding that each child’s needs are different.
Sri Lanka and the international stance
When considering the initiation showcased by nations such as India, particularly where there would be in-house speech therapists and occupational therapists in all schools, Sri Lanka lags behind.
“We have occupational therapists and speech therapists but if you look at the level and quality of the knowledge and the way they work with children in the western world, because I’ve lived there, I can guarantee that there’s a difference; their knowledge and the way they approach the children is also different,” added Markandu, whilst delving into the matter.
“Change4Autism” is a movement under Reach Beyond that will be launched this April to focus on bringing about effective and long-lasting changes in all sectors of life and national policies, which will enable individuals with autism (disabilities) to live a life with dignity.
The foremost feature of the movement is to highlight its initiative to involve parents, professionals, legal and health experts, teachers, and the youth together to make a difference. Consideration and sensitivity should be showcased by those of all professions, including health and legal sectors, due to the uniqueness of autistic children and this was a thought highlighted by the Co-founders. On a family level, it is important to acknowledge and empower parents by giving them the skills to cope with the matter.
Secondly, it focuses on the education system to accommodate the needs of autistic children through the presenting of opportunities by including them in activities. “This doesn’t mean that kids showing high behavioural characteristics should be included in similar environments, but it must be fair and equitable,” said Markandu
Photos: Saman Abesiriwardana
Address: No. 14/7, Tickell Road, Colombo 8
Tel: 077 7327120 for Sinhala and English, 077 7327121 for English and Tamil