Best Buddy

Down the street from Mount Holyoke College is a special place – Berkshire Hills Music Academy. On entering the academy, it is hard not to be won over by the cheerful greetings and the enthusiasm that the students show. Here, young adults having cognitive or developmental disabilities (like Williams syndrome, autism etc), with a special talent for music are nurtured. Students are involved in a number of stimulating activities throughout the semester, like swimming, vocal training, performing in concerts, outdoor trips, and other creative activities.

bhma_performance

“Berkshire Hills Music Academy offers a unique, music-infused curriculum which includes a full range of life skills, social skills, functional academics and independent living experiences for individuals with cognitive and developmental disabilities” – Admissions office

bhma

In my first semester of college, I joined a program called C.A.U.S.E. (Creating Awareness for Social Equality) and became a ‘Best Buddy’. All volunteers were paired with one student from BHMA; they would correspond regularly and take part in an activity with him/her about twice a month. I vividly remember my first time at BHMA, more than a year ago… We were in the hall, being briefed about the responsibilities and other logistics of the program. For instance, we were not allowed to reveal non-public information about our best buddies to anyone etc. All of a sudden, a tall, healthy and full of life flew into the room, unable to contain her excitement. She was going to have a college friend after all! Our co-coordinator softly suggested her to wait outside.

Imagine my happiness when I discovered that the charming girl was my best buddy, Whitney.  A tall and confident girl, she had something enigmatic about her that intrigued me. I could see that in additions to a strong emotional side, she had a levelheaded and reasoning mind. I underwent a short training ssession, meant to equip me with the information to handle emergencies and unexpected situations that may arise during an outing with her. Later I started to know her, and I would ask her questions. Whenevershe wanted to reply in the afirmative, she would say ‘yes’ and ‘yeah’ over and over again, sometimes dozens of times. I recognized it as a compulsion; however I couldn’t help speculating that she might also be reinforcing a positive feeling (‘Yes’) by saying it over and over… that the challenges she had to face helped her develop a stronghold of pure joy… I believe that her happiness, reinforced in this way, seeped into her physical frame, seen in her stature (5’9 or 5’10) and her body strength. Of course physical training like swimming, basketball and piano enhanced her vitality. There may be genetic factors to that favored these qualities in her. However, her recurring chime, her repeated affirmation could only have served to enhance her sense of well- being.

Once we met at a Halloween party at MHC. She had come with all her friends at BHMA, dressed up in costumes, some fancier than others and wearing an expression of glee. I was wearing a blue princess dress and pearl earrings (Who says Halloween is only about scaring people out of their skin?). Looking around the dance floor, you could tell them from others only by the fact that they seemed to enjoy themselves thoroughly. While many did not dance like professionals, one of them was truly better than every other person in the room in my humble opinion. Whitney’s movements, even though simple, had a good finish. As we danced facing each other, she made eye contact and flashed her jovial smile. I was content in this moment, not judging my dance steps or my outfit or anyone else’s. Perhaps her carefree nature and radiating confidence had a role in this. The eye of the beholder saw some shred of brilliance in my smile and forevermore, called me by the name of ‘sunshine’.  I truly admire her appetite for life. The story continues… 

A mystical aura

They say God resides everywhere. He resides in forgiveness, in patience, in gratitude, in faith and hope in more avatars than we can conceive in our thoughts… When we get wounded, we can see the flesh, blood and other elements of the working mechanism of our body. Often the exceptions to the rule, the ‘eventuality of the anomality’ (Matrix)  can give vital insights about the rules, the “normality”.  A crack in the wall is enough to let in light. I believe that if one looks diligently enough, lovingly enough and faithfully enough, then amidst the myriad imperfections will be found precious jewels of spiritual wisdom. In a cursory look, an autistic person seems no different than a normal person; even inspired or passionate about some aspects of life. Delving into the world of autistics can give us vital information about our brains and minds. One must tread carefully through facts of their life before one can go beyond to make interpretations. One thing I assure you – these jewels will certainly dazzle you.

I visited the “School of Hope”,  in Vasant Vihar’s CPWD complex, New Delhi on 22nd December 2005. I thank Mrs. Padamshree Shyama Chona for giving me this unique opportunity to visit the center for autistic children. Albeit knowing a lot about autism through books, the internet, etc. observing these children and their daily routine was a novel experience. I was mesmerized for a while, into the world in which they live, different from ours in so many ways… In just a few minutes in the school, I was immersed into a different world – the world of autism. I saw them; I saw how each one was different, owned a personal set of fixations, an individual spontaneity in the rhythm of their activities. One girl I visited would start crying if a certain piece of music would not be played at a specific time of the day. Another child, barely 3 years of age, would wistfully stare out of the window, for hours I thinkwanting to go  play outisde. His obsessive desire came in an abnormal quantity. It was heartwrenchng to watch his face pressed against the window bars, silent and motionless.   

They will not make eye contact with you easily. First person account of Temple Grandin suggests that they are “overwhelmed” by the inordinate amount of information that is communicated through the subtle movements of the eye. (No wonder so many love songs refer to communication through sight). This is often mistaken for an attitude of “coldness” or aloofness”. From my personal experience I can say that to instigate communication, they need a guiding impulse, perhaps an “inspiration” or a fixation. Another common characteristic is that autistic people are unable to relate to people in the ordinary way, are severely limited in language and had a strong obsessive desire that everything about them remain exactly the same. It seems that they cannot demarcate boundaries between their perceptions and others’. For example, an autistic cannot understand that while his right arm is at his “right hand side” while the right arm of a girl standing opposite him, is at his “left hand side”.

They were having a Christmas Party, rather there was a Christmas party organized for them; for even though the carols were ringing through the hall and chocolates were being handed around, they hardly believed that the day was “special” in any way. In their world, every day was almost the same as the one before and the one that would come after. I stood leaning against the doorway, when swiftly and unexpectedly, a boy walked up to me, made eye contact and kept his palm where he thought my heart would be stationed – to the left side. As he kept the position, I held my breath. Within a few seconds, the contact broke which may have to do with the school teachers being agitated to see such a gesture of communication. He was seated by the teachers present and it appeared that he was a little fatigued from the sheer endeavor.  

I truly felt blessed that day. Wordlessly, he had expressed much more than words could say. This is because I already bore the message that he wished to communicate. He was only the key to decrypt the message, the key to the lock. I want to believe that I was signaled to do special work that’d help the autistic people. I can. Perhaps, this is my purpose on earth, and will give me infinite satisfaction. While there will be challenges to conquer and hard work to be done the cause makes it worth the effort. I hope you will join me in this journey full of beauty and adventure.