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For special children

Kaleidoscope Learning Center, a school for children with special needs, opens tomorrow at R. A. Puram, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Vasudha Prakash, a clinical psychologist with vast experience.

IF YOU are looking for structured, meaningful schooling for a child with special needs, Kaleidoscope Learning Center on Greenways Lane is where you might want to go. In an optimum use of space, the centre offers a slew of indoor and outdoor activities that will delight any child. "The first thing they'll do when they get in is step into the garden," informs Dr. Vasudha Prakash, Founder/Director. "Two children will be allotted a patch to tend to for 40 minutes."

A small warren for rabbits, a cage of lovebirds and a run-around puppy add value to the open-air therapy. "This is in line with the latest in using animals for remedial treatment," says the doctor. A walk in the sun-shaped sensory/perceptual park could be the next activity. Each of its rays leading to the middle (for a final activity) will afford a different sensory experience. "One will be a path of sand and another may have gravel to walk on."

At the entrance is a huge grass clock whose white plastic hands the children will move to mark time and seasons. Workouts in a sunny gym will complete the out-of-doors curriculum. Similar thinking, expertise and innovation characterise the equipment indoors. The "work spot" that overlooks the garden is a curly table with tiny stools for the younger students. "Children with autism have a `phantom syndrome'," explains Dr. Vasudha. "The stool that fits into the cut-out space in the table will force them to focus on their bodies."

The apparatus for (the first in Chennai) Miller therapy occupies an entire outhouse. Colourful cheese boards, wooden walkways that end in squares for stand-only exercises, kennel-like structures for crawling in and out — the focus again is on body awareness. Twelve computers ("it is a multi-sensorial medium") will assist the older ones fine tune their learning.

A clinical psychologist by training, Dr. Vasudha brings to Chennai "15+ years of experience in teaching, special education, administration, curriculum development and educational research and technology in the U.S. and overseas." She has devised individualised learning activities for children and adults with developmental disabilities; as a senior research assistant with the Newark Board of Education, NJ, USA, she was involved in all aspects of special education testing; as Assistant Professor, Kean University, she taught graduate and undergraduate level courses in special education and research and co-ordinated its curriculum; and when she decided to return to India she was president of Kean University — a job of much prestige and satisfaction.

So, why the homecoming? "People who are in touch with themselves will not live anywhere else," says this expert in applied behaviour analysis and Miller method for autism. "At one point in life, you have to give back, do something for your soul. My research for Ph.D. was about India. During my regular visits, I found that out of the 260 schools for disabled children in Chennai, 50 per cent are dingy holes."

In the 18 `schools' for kids with developmental disabilities (mental retardation, learning disability, autism, attention deficiency disorder), she found a lack of system and structure. "There are well-meaning teachers but theirs is an eclectic approach. How do you evaluate the effectiveness of any one method?"

"I shifted my plan of action. Before I established a school for special children I had to start a centre to train teachers to understand that they had to teach the child, not the curriculum. For two years, I called, met and begged organisations in the U.S. for materials to assess visual co-ordination, AAD, pattern forming... " Her cupboards hold several lakh rupees worth of educational tools for both teachers and the taught.

In August 2001, her Academy for Teacher Excellence (part of V-Excel Foundation) opened on the MGR Janaki College premises and the first batch of teachers are getting trained in her methods.

Some of her current programmes are a one-year diploma course in teacher training, teacher assignments, parent counselling, teaching methods and remedial teaching for slow learners. Projects on the anvil include: two evenings a year for developmentally challenged boys and girls over 16 where they can join a party, watch a movie or dance, a parent support group and a vocational training centre.

Intelli-Tool, a large keyboard capable of changing its face to be multi-functional and a voice-activated pencil dictionary are some of the latest teaching aids kids at the Kaleidoscope Learning Center will get familiar with. "All teaching will be done through power point and an LCD projector. Visual and tactile experiences will form the major chunk of instruction. The accent will be on quality and authenticity," says Dr. Vasudha, clearly in touch with the educational and emotional needs of children with "a beautiful mind."

Kaleidoscope Learning Center, R. A. Puram, opens on June 7. Dr. Vasudha can be contacted at 495 6373 / 495 3786.

GEETA PADMANABHAN

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