I walk into Chyrsalis – a small school for autistic children in Neelankarai, Chennai- and I’m greeted by smiles. In a courtyard shaded by trees, children interact with their teachers, tossing a ball back and forth to each other. It is oddly serene, and I am immediately put at ease. Inside, I meet the director of the school Ms. Rekha, and Ms. Viviani – a special educator, who have graciously agreed to share their experiences with Avaz – their stories – with me.
“We feel like we’ve become better people”
Due to our extensive reliance on language to express and understand emotions, sometimes an autistic child’s feelings go unnoticed, or are misinterpreted. Several high-functioning autistic adults have elucidated that as children, they often had instances where they felt intense emotions (such as those of anger or fear) but had trouble expressing those feelings coherently. Here, AAC devices help facilitate this very expression, by giving a voice to previously unspoken feelings. Rekha and Viviani recount the instance where a young student was in distress, crying incessantly. It was by using AVAZ that she was able to relay to her instructors that she wanted to see her mother, who had passed away. Needless to say, both Rekha and Viviani were overwhelmed by the extent to which the little girl was able to express her emotions when given the right tools. According to Rekha, AVAZ has helped the faculty of Chrysalis be better listeners and establish deeper connections with the students.
“Don’t leave me alone”
A 5 year old at Chrysalis was gearing for his transfer to a mainstream school about a year ago, and as a part of this process, he was required to attend an assessment session at his new school. Upon his return, his teachers were eager to hear about how it went. Using AVAZ, they asked him questions about his experience. Pushing the device away, he burst into tears, then taking back the device, he used it to say “Don’t leave me alone”. Later, AVAZ helped him communicate to his teachers his fears about transferring to the new school – he thought his teachers were pushing him away and leaving him. Understanding this, the teachers were able to pacify him, tell him that he would never be alone, and explain to him how much fun he was going to have at his new school.
The ease of navigability and extensive customization options are features that make AVAZ most appealing to the students at Chrysalis. The predictability of the software, coupled with the appeal of the touch screen make communication a hands-on, enjoyable activity geared to the multi-sensory needs of an autistic child. Rekha notes that the intent to communicate has grown, and more children are taking the initiative to communicate. Rekha and Viviani have only good things to say, and in the year that it has been in use, Avaz seems to have brought about many wonderful improvements. I leave as I came, with a smile on my face.