This Friday, we made our weekly trip to the special-needs school Amour Sans Frontieres (“Love without Borders”), which we missed last week to join Fatima for sports day. Going to the special-needs schools requires us to muster up more than the usual energy because, beyond the language barrier that weighs on us at all the schools, the usual modes of communication on which one relies unconsciously are plucked out from under one when dealing with handicapped students. On the positive side, the resulting void opens up the possibility of connecting with disparate members of the human family—as special needs children are—in ways that would go undiscovered without the challenge. On Friday, Vedant and I made this gratifying discovery.
For the first hour or so of our visit, some of us played soccer, while others walked the students through simple origami (a skill that I was thankful to have picked up during one of my excursions into the world of crafts). The head teacher eventually brought a few of the fellows to a room in which some of the younger kids played and, with much French-English frustration, explained that some of the high-functioning autistic students might benefit from our individual attention. It is unfortunate that in Mauritius autistic and mentally or physically handicapped children are lumped into the same facilities, when ideally each of these three groups would have their own.
I volunteered to work with an autistic around-ten-to-twelve-year-old who was so shy and anxious that he had to be physically pried from his seat before he would follow me to a table where we sat down facing each other. I brought out some square paper and started folding a world-class balloon, a strategy which had served me earlier that morning, but he had no interest in imitating my folds and instead rolled the paper into a messy cylinder and started waving it around. He didn’t say a word, nor did he show any signs that he understood my villainous Kreol. Ok, what now? Knowing that some autistic people are extremely adept with numbers and logic, I started tearing the paper into bits and crumpling the bits into little beads, thinking that any numbers game would have to start with units, and hoping that he would pull a Nobel prize-deserving proof out of some hidden store of genius, using only those materials. Instead, he brushed the beads off the table with his cylinder (which, in fairness, might have been a proof beyond my comprehension). At that point, a breakthrough in our relationship occured. He looked me in the eyes and furrowed his brow. I furrowed back. He threw his hand across his face and laughed with abandon, as though to say, “Ahh, what an absurd world, in which brows are furrowed.” For the next hour, we looked each other in the eye and went through cycles of relaxation and furrowment, which he and—after a bit—I found hilarious. The process put me into a psychotic state, in which I mentally put words to the conversations we were conducting non-verbally. The thought that he was a genius, entertained by his own ability to manipulate me into such a ridiculous process, kept suggesting itself to me. For the full hour of furrowing, I was fixated.
Meanwhile, Vedant faced another challenge. He had claimed an autistic kid, known to be extremely talented with music, and just as shy. Vedant took out his ipod and put on the ELI fellows’ (or at least those who have been making the musical decisions of late’s) favorite song, “Waving Flag” by K’naan. The kid stared in fascination at the image of K’naan on the ipod and figured out on his own how to restore that screen when Steve Jobbs’ power-saving mechanism would turn the screen black. Once the child had been sufficiently informed that “when he gets older, he will be stronger,” Vedant gave him a drum, the hollow of which he put up to his face. After a minute, he began to sing quietly into the drum, then, after another, facing the world full on with Vedant’s weak accompaniment.