While browsing and researching, I stumbled across this video on YouTube, titled ‘A day at Nav Prerna Foundation’ which starts off with a calming voiceover introducing the viewers to an organization which goes by the aforementioned name. Nestled in the heart of the mountains, this the Nav Prerna Foundation is located in Dehradun as an inspiration centre which works towards relief and rehabilitation of people with autism and related developmental disorders.
As the voice continues, we get to know that their primary approach is based on alternative therapies and the incorporation of a healthy lifestyle, with their motto being – “To make individuals independent”.
Interspersed with clips of a regular day beginning with a ‘morning assembly’, followed by various tasks designed to aid the well-being of the people who seek their services; a holistic perspective evident in their functioning. Nav Prerna’s activities are also combined with various pre-vocational and vocational training, besides the traditional academic exercises are are all familiar with. Unlike most traditional educational institutions, students are taught according to their capabilities and even given sufficient breaks to rest and recharge themselves for the rest of the day. With multiple recreational activities such as music, dance, and art, the students flourish under the liveliness of this little centre.
The meals and snacks are diligently prepared in a way that caters to their special dietary and physiological needs. Following a Gluten-free and Casein-free diet (GFCF), according to various studies, is important for people with developmental and behavioural disorders who cannot process certain proteins completely. These disturbances get manifested in physical ways, such as gastrointestinal problems, resulting in subsequent behavioural issues.
But diet is just a part of the entire structure. There is also an emphasis on sports and games, in the form of regular visits to a nearby college-ground and other excursion trips, which helps improve their physical-motor abilities, as well as their social interpersonal skills via light-hearted team-activities. There is an innate sense of belonging that resonates through the warmth of this group house, be it staff or student. Guided by various special tutors, teachers, and teacher assistants, they do not just stop at managing symptoms temporarily but rather focus on helping these individuals become capable of integrating into mainstream society as functioning social beings.
Whenever we read or hear about ‘Autism’, our perception revolves around a psychological disorder, probably violent and scary, which cannot be cured. This is far from the truth; one that forms an integral part of public discourse today.
Autism is not an “incurable retardation” but rather an umbrella term which constitutes a wide range of developmental-behavioural problems, especially in acquiring social skills and communication, with varied symptoms and implications. Signs of Autism can begin to show in children as young as 2 years old. Early intervention is key, especially at the primary level, i.e., family, friends, and then at the secondary level, i.e., school.
This Project was the result of a mother’s constant struggles with the ‘norm’.
Saswati Singh, the founder of Nav Prerna, hails from Kolkata with a personal history littered with tragedy and numerous fights. She lost her father at a tender age, which forced her to become her family’s pillar of strength. Completing her studies in microbiology, she worked as a teacher at multiple schools and later got married to a man from Haryana.
Her first child born from this marriage, Prakhar, was a result of multiple complications which led to asphyxiation and some episodes of epilepsy. This boy went on to lead the next couple years of his life in a pretty “normal” way, attended school and developed the ability to speak. He was extremely hyperactive, which caused issues at school. At the age of four, he came down with a severe fever and several bouts of epilepsy followed. This left his brain with significant permanent damage. After which, Saswati was extremely devastated.
Singh decided to quit her job in a Delhi school as a senior biology teacher and channel all her time towards giving her son, Prakhar, a good life. They were rejected by over 40 schools. With a second child and Prakhar being kicked out of his school, her resolve did not waver. In 1995, she decided to start her own school in a small West-Delhi flat called ‘Prerna Special School’.
This was followed by a few more years of struggle, until Singh was approached by Kiran Bedi, the then Special Secretary to Lieutenant Governor of Delhi. She allotted a space for the institution at the Community Centre in Tilak Nagar. The school, with its headquarters in NCR, works on providing facilities to people from low-income backgrounds and providing free admissions with the help of a team of volunteers from colleges and other institutions. She actively worked to encourage the mothers to take up responsibilities and duties, offering jobs at the centre to them which drew in more students.
Selected by Maneka Gandhi, the former Minister of Women & Child Development, Singh visited Japan and was inspired by the aged mothers running organisations there. She also went to Washington DC for the Special Olympics, and eventually decided to enter the Son-Rise Startup program at Option Institute, Massachusetts where she first learned about the GFCF diet.
In 2005, the project spread it roots and expanded to Dehradun. The conducive, calming environment, according to them, was ideal for special treatment. Seeing how well her son responded to being in a group, her aim was to form this group-home with a cohesive nature, one with warm and dependable role models. Singh’s group home in Dehradun was the first group home for Autism in established the country.
From the beginning she saw that there was a question about how long these children could survive being dependent on special environments and facilities, while the real world remains hostile. This is why vocational training became important as it helps to make the students independent and able to assimilate into the “normal world”. They are taught etiquette; made to handle money, solve problems, handle chores, and much more. As the voiceover-lady from the YouTube video said, they strive to give these individuals dignity and freedom.
Singh along with her daughter, the staff, and volunteer team form the backbone of this project. From being the HR to business heads, to chefs and tutors, they handle everything on their own. Prerna, her daughter, is now working on a business idea called ‘Cafe Canopy’ which ventures to create an inclusive workplace for these people and spread GFCF information. With a degree in Social Work, she also handles the networking and social media management aspects.
This is all driven by their motive to bring about meaningful change to countless lives. It is the kind of change that makes them independent and helps them function in society without any major hassles. On a more fundamental level, they strive to create a home.
Originally published by: Efforts for Good