Unlike most other mothers, Roli Singh did not hear her newborn wail soon after birth; the sound came 10 or 12 minutes later. This delay continued later in life for Shravinal. He had difficulty chewing his food; she had to tailor it so he wouldn’t choke. “He was late to crawl, walk. He had difficulty folding his hands, gripping and holding on to things. We started physiotherapy when he was three.”
Shravinal’s father, Manvendra Singh, was aware that his second child behaved very differently from the first, Adilya. “One day at work I was talking to my boss about Shravinal, when he suggested I speak to his elder brother as his son too has a similar condition.” A TV show, _Aapki Antara_, featuring a girl with autism, also grabbed his attention. Shravinal, after being examined by a series of doctors, was finally diagnosed with autism in Delhi when he was almost four.
The family moved from town to town in Madhya Pradesh, looking for good treatment for Shravinal: Chhindwara, Seoni, Ranchi, Raipur, Gurgaon (now Gurugram), and finally, Bhopal, where they now live. In Seoni, the facilities were poor, so they found a good physiotherapist in Nagpur. “I used to take my kids up and down every month to Nagpur, about 120 km away, to meet the therapist and learn from her. He started walking after that, at the age of five,” says Roli.
The periodic uprooting took its toll on Adilya, who is a Grade 11 student in Sharada Public School. He recites a litany of his past schools: “Grades 1 to 4, Seoni; Grade 5, Gurgaon; Grade 6, Ranchi; till mid-Grade 9, Raipur, then Bhopal”. He was bullied each time he was enrolled in a new school (“the worst was in Gurgaon”) and inwardly blamed his brother for it. Adilya is today a sensitive, mature 16-year-old who is able to analyse and understand the cause of his past rancour, and is a loving, protective older brother. Manvendra says, “Sometimes Shravinal might not listen to me or his mom, but he does everything his brother tells him.”
Manvendra wants to enrol Shravinal in a special school “so that he can make friends” but Roli believes he is progressing well through online sessions and classes in speech therapy and physiotherapy. She sits with him to learn what is being taught. Manvendra describes Shravinal’s routine. “He wakes up at 7.30 a.m. His mother makes him do an hour of the alphabet and rhymes, then he watches TV. His therapy classes start at 1 p.m. and go on till 3; then he rests. When I come home in the evening, he spends time with me. And again before sleeping, his mom makes him practise his lessons for an hour.”
Roli believes the therapists at Gurugram have made all the difference to Shravinal. “He is now able to grip with his hands, he can hold on to objects, make word associations. He can identify and recognise a lot of things, eat on his own and even go to the washroom on his own.” She adds, “He likes watching Pokemon and CID on TV. He is mischievous too! Sometimes he will drop something, or misplace something, and then blame Adilya for it.”
Adilya describes his brother’s volatile temperament: “He used to get agitated if things didn’t go the way he wanted or if anybody scolded him. He would start throwing things, banging his head, scream and shout. Now he doesn’t do it. I am a little strict with him just so that he learns. I don’t spend a lot of time with him, but I still pick a fight if somebody talks ill about him or is mean to him. He is my little brother and I have to protect him.”
Manvendra, who works for a multinational company, confesses that for many years he had visited every “mandir, masjid, church” across the country, hoping for a miraculous cure for his son. For a while the family isolated themselves because “in small towns there is still a stigma [about intellectual disability] and some people even called him ‘paagal’ (mad)”. Once he came to terms with Shravinal’s autism he started reading a lot about it. “I understand it is a spectrum. Now my mind is resolved that I will help my child by understanding him better.”
Adds Roli, “I would like to do everything that I possibly can to see him fully independent. Every time I see him managing to do something on his own, I feel very happy. It might be small things like eating, or holding a cup, but I feel proud. I just want him to live an independent, happy life.”