When a child is diagnosed with autism in India, most families find themselves in a vacuum, says Merry Barua, Founder and Director of Action for Autism (AFA). And she should know. Her son, born 37 years ago was diagnosed with a severe form of autism.
Today, however, the landscape has changed. The recently enacted Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 in fact enshrines reservation of jobs in the public sector for persons with autism. Even in the private sector, doors are beginning to open. SAP Labs India, for instance, currently employs 17 persons with autism in their Bangalore office. Globally they have over 100 employees with autism.
While this is a great beginning, there is still a long way to go. Persons with autism spectrum condition learn social skills cognitively, as opposed to learning them intuitively. Thus, they need an enabling environment and support systems that provide them with the tools to learn these skills. At the sheltered workshop ‘Aadhar’ in AFA, you will see signs such as one for a ‘calming area’ – a place to unwind everytime the surrounding feels overwhelming. There are also frequent breaks for walks.
At SAP Labs India, their Autism at Work programme is designed to cater to the needs of individuals with autism. They also conduct frequent sensitisation programmes for all employees and support staff, which has enabled candidates to integrate well into SAP.
These accommodations are essential for persons with autism to function on an equal basis with others. However, Merry feels, the understanding of reasonable accommodation is still nascent in India. “If earlier there was the perception that persons with autism could not be part of the mainstream, today we face the danger of them being pigeonholed as super achievers,” says Merry. “I have met many employers and parents who ask me for how long support systems need to be provided. To that, I ask them how long do you think a person needs to wear corrective glasses or a hearing aid? This support is a constant and not merely a mechanism required to get into the playing field,” she adds.
With adequate support, persons with autism are working in regular jobs. Achyuntanal Guha – known as Mr. Guha to everyone at AFA, works in their accounts section. When we approach him to ask a few questions about his work, he tells us to wait. He is not very fond of his routine getting disturbed. Once he finishes the task at hand, he sits down with us. He has been working for the last 18 years, he tells us. Focusing on work in a shared space is a challenge for him, but he has adapted over the years.
Mr. Guha is a success story, but Merry urges caution on focusing on ‘success’. “How do you measure success? For one person with autism, it could be getting a job in an MNC, while for another it could be just being able to get out of the house,” she says. What is needed is more buy-in to make systemic changes, because acceptance cannot happen without changes to our environment and within the community.