How an online art platform seeks to break the stigma of autism

Curated by Autypical, it aims to create awareness about the capabilities of autistic people and give them a platform to showcase their work.

ByProma Chakraborty
How an online art platform seeks to break the stigma of autism
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An advocacy group called Autypical has created an online platform for autistic children and young adults from across India to showcase their art.

The idea is to create an online platform for autistic artists. “It will shine light on the abilities of the autistic population particularly in relation to art. Scientific data indicates that they are very gifted in terms of art,” explained Rashmi Das, managing director of Autypical.

Rashmi was inspired to launch Autypical after her son Suhrid’s online art store took off. “When it was well received, I thought if my child could do good art, it was high time I did something for all autistic children.”

Surhid, 15, is a non-verbal autistic with co-occurring epilepsy, and is a visual learner. Since he was two, colours and textures have been his sensory fixations. He paints for several hours each week with an array of brushes, rollers, and sponges, and his workplace has a liberal spread of easels and colour. He has heightened sensitivity for textures and colours, and usually chooses a bright palette of colours for his works. Several of his paintings have been bought at art exhibitions.

Autism in India

India doesn’t have proper statistical data on autism because the diagnosis rates are low. Lack of awareness, notions of stigma, and superstition are all contributing factors for the low rate of diagnosis.

Now, though, attempts are being made to do away with the stigma and give strength to more parents. In this regard, Rashmi explained that “Autypical” is a lexical innovation.

“The a-word is handed as a diagnosis and the impact of this can be far-reaching and even devastating; not so much due to the challenges of the condition but because of the accompanying nomenclature and the resultant stigma that society imposes,” she said.

The idea that autistic children are not able to do anything is the biggest stereotype this initiative hopes to break. “Just like you have neurotypical, autypicals cannot be chastised because of their neuro developmental conditions,” Rashmi said.

She has had bad experiences with schools. While Surhid is now studying in a private school where major highlights of his Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, are in art, he was discriminated against in other schools, she claimed.

According to Rashmi, schools tend to give labels such as “high functioning and low functioning” to autistic kids, labels that should be dispensed with. Autypical follows this practice in describing the works on its platform. They have gone with one label – autistic.

Agreeing with Rashmi, Shweta Vaidya shared her ordeal with schools. Her son Jai Vaidya, 16, has autism along with Type 1 diabetes. To find the right set of doctors, therapists and educators has been tough for her.

Jai waits the whole year for his birthday. It’s the only day he can eat pizza, burger and chocolate cake to his heart’s content. With his photographic memory, he takes only a few seconds to play a tune on a piano.

At a time when he didn’t even know the alphabet, Jai could write movie names backwards. Today, he can recall the names of films he has watched in a particular cinema hall, in the same sequence. Jai knows the exact times of a movie scene, or a song line, or even a word in an audio or video clip. He types fast, and loves cycling, swimming, and is a big foodie.

Jai Vaidya has been painting for over two years.

Jai Vaidya has been painting for over two years.

Over two years ago, he became interested in art. Shweta took to writing blogs to document his journey and what she learned from it. In her first blog, she shared her experience from when Jai was diagnosed with autism. “Something is not right,” she said to herself. He had started regressing when he was around 14 months old, finding it hard to make eye contact, understand language, and generally respond.

Shweta looked up “child not responding” and started reading up online. This is how she stumbled upon autism.

“Autism diagnosis is a grey area initially if the child seems to be on the borderline. It's a whole spectrum from mild to severe. The diagnosis is not that difficult as the acceptance is. The diagnosis is still easy to accept if it were you, but here, it’s your child who is being diagnosed. Most of the parents would not want anything to happen to their child which is not normal as per rules set by society,” she said.

She recalled that she and her husband were bent on curing him in the first few years, to get him to be “normal”. Eventually, as Jai was diagnosed with diabetes, she grew more concerned about handling his autism, his therapies, giving him medication and insulin, preparing food charts on an hourly basis.

One of Jai Vaidya's paintings on display.

One of Jai Vaidya's paintings on display.

For non-verbal autistic Aditi Somyanaryan, 15, last year was a unique one. The lockdown took her understanding of structure and threw it out the window, replacing it with something new and unknown. Though regular online classes ensured continuity in learning, it was online art classes that helped her adapt to learn in a new way and gave an expression to some of her emotions.

Art helped Aditi Somyanaryan adapt to the lockdown.

Art helped Aditi Somyanaryan adapt to the lockdown.

Art is a skill that RM Karthik, 16, from Chennai, acquired and became devoted to during the lockdown. The detailing and colour in his works, though, give an impression that he has been honing his skills for a while. The autistic teen also cleared his Class X through National Institute of Open Schooling.

RM Karthik rapidly  perfected his painting skills during the lockdown.

RM Karthik rapidly perfected his painting skills during the lockdown.

The platform showcases works from artists aged five to 24. Rashmi is happy with the response the platform, launched on March 27, has received so far. “I see this community of autypical artists becoming a robust platform for inclusion and dignity. And we will shift the gear to ability. The children and their parents are the heroes,” she said.

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