By Lindsey Shepherd, BCBA, a member of the SkillCorps India July 2016 team
Today, it is our 9th day in India and 6th day at the SOREM school for our SkillCorps team. Everything has started to feel more normal and less startling. The frequent car honking, the street dogs barking, and hearing the teachers say “Shabash,” (which is Hindi for “Well done”) are now the familiar soundtrack to Chandigarh. The school has always felt the most familiar and comforting setting in India for me as the students and teachers feel like they could almost be transplants from my U.S. school. The teachers are eager to learn, asking for me to tell them if they are doing something wrong or to give them ideas to make it better while the students are very interested in my presence in the classroom. They watch me when I move around the room, often as I try to place myself in a better location so I am not so distracting to them, as I try to observe. One student would stare at me and not look at his work, “He’s not used to a pretty lady sitting next to him,” she says, “Maybe not with bright red hair like mine,” I reply, and we both chuckle. The kids are just as endearing as my students back home. Most of them are non-verbal or only have a few words they can say, so the language barrier really has minimal impact on our interactions. I often catch them smiling at me and if I sit down they will come very close to me and look me in the eye, kiss me on the cheek or gently play with my earrings by quickly flicking them with their fingers. Communication with gestures and facial expressions is all we really need. I have always felt that once I got to know a non-verbal student I would often forget they could not speak because we could almost have full conversations without ever needing to say a word; the same holds true in India. It’s like the Rumi quote, “The lanterns are different but the light is the same.”
Part of our goal this visit is to train the teachers to use a new assessment to establish skill levels and guide future teaching and lessons. The teachers are smart and have understood this very quickly and share that it is useful and applicable, both are qualities that can be hard to find in an assessment for children with moderate to severe autism. They ask me questions about how programs and schools run in the U.S. Three teachers have asked me how they could become a BCBA like myself. They would like to have the same education and knowledge. It is slightly heartbreaking to hear this question after I learned the reality is there are no BCBA graduate programs that exist in India, or BCBA’s to complete supervision, making it close to impossible to achieve. We discuss online programs as an option but the cost of tuition and the lack of supervision in India cause it to still feel out of reach. “One day there might be a program in India,” the teachers say hopefully. I nod as I really have nothing else to offer and for a lifetime student like myself, I completely understand the desire to learn more and feel even more sympathetic they do not have the same opportunity. I take down email addresses and promise to send other online learning opportunities I may find that they could benefit from, the only consolation I can offer.
Throughout our last four days at the school I will try to flood them with as much knowledge as I can impart before we leave. ‘Discussions, modeling, practicing, repeat,’ will fill our days. This quote by the Dalai Lama seems fitting for our work here in India, “It is not enough to be compassionate, you must act.” We are on the ground, we are in the classrooms, we are watching, we are listening and most importantly we are acting.