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“I start dancing when my granny and I listen to music. By the way, I love shelling peas”

How crucial it is to train teachers to handle hyperactive children! Aarti Mehra (48) from Amritsar, herself a former teacher, and her businessman husband Rishi Mehra (51) became painfully aware of this truth two decades ago when hunting for the right school for their firstborn, Niyati, who was diagnosed with autism.
DAV Public School, where they initially admitted her, did have special education teachers but when the school management changed hands, the principal felt that special education was an unnecessary financial burden. Regular teachers could not cope with Niyati’s special needs and they began to complain that she kept running out of class. Her parents started combing Amritsar for suitable schools but found that none had special educators.
Aarti then got Niyati admitted in the mainstream school where she was a teacher. Here, a senior teacher who was a disciplinarian would restrain the restless child by tying her hands to the chair! Often, when Aarti was teaching her class, she could hear Niyati screaming. After taking her out of this school the Mehras checked out a new one that offered to cater to Niyati’s needs, but they soon found out that the school had admitted her just to increase their admissions, and were least interested in attending to her.
Everyone must have heaved a huge sigh of relief when Spring Dale employed a skilled special educator, Prerna Khanna (whom we mentioned in our recent story on Manas Wadhwa). She taught in the school’s junior wing, Spring Blossoms, and Niyati flourished under her tutelage so much so that she cleared her 10th standard exams.
Niyati is now 25 years old. Her mother recalls the day she was born, and how she developed high fever that was treated with antibiotics and which kept her in the hospital nursery for 15 days. As an infant, her lips would tremble and Aarti put it down to the effect of the strong meds. Then, they noticed that her developmental milestones were delayed. Her parents took her to the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh where tests showed that she was on the autism spectrum. The signs were evident when she started speaking: she did not make eye contact, was repetitive in her communication, and could not hold a conversation. At age nine, she was also diagnosed with mild mental retardation.
Niyati’s life took an upward turn when she started attending a vocational centre run by the Punjab centre of the national-award-winning NGO Saksham Trust. She travels in the school van and is happy among her circle of friends who also teach her little tricks like how to dress up well and how to use the features of the smartphone. At Saksham, she learns basic life skills such as cooking and taking care of personal hygiene.
Aarti narrated how she and Rishi had decided not to have another kid so that they could focus on bringing up Niyati. But then she got pregnant again after several years, and now Dhivit (13) and Niyati share a strong sibling bond. Their grandmother Uma Mehra played a major role in caring for Niyati until recently when she developed Alzheimer's. Even today, Niyati and her granny spend long hours together listening to music which Niyati loves to dance to. Her repetitive behaviour finds a use in the kitchen; she can shell six to seven kilos of peas at a stretch!
Aarti’s brother recently invited her to visit him in Australia. At first she was apprehensive about making this solo trip – who would look after Niyati? But then her family members reassured her that they would take charge, and she was able to enjoy a well-deserved break.
Niyati loves dressing up, eating out with the family, going on ice-cream dates with her dad, and watching TV. Despite her disability she makes the most of her life.


Vicky Roy