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On April 28, a 13-year-old boy with autism studying in grade 8 made news over an account of breaking the Guinness World Records for the largest number created through magnets, by forming a 2D image of the number ‘44’ using 44,000 magnets. According to a latest survey on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), one in every 44 children being born is diagnosed with ASD, up from 1 in 150 in the year 2000. “The percentage change in these figures is tremendous. Even scientists don’t know why this is happening,” says Amit’s father, Ramkumar Sarangapani.
While people around him rushed to take pictures of the occasion and congratulatory messages poured in from all directions, Amit nonchalantly walked up to his father, to nudge him about the toy car he was promised as a gift post the achievement of this ‘task’. A task in its true sense, Amit remained untethered from the validation that his laudable accomplishment brought forth. For him, it was just about creating the number 44 using 44,000 magnets. “He doesn’t feel a sense of pride with the validation. He was just happy he completed his task,” says his father, adding that they always link the fulfillment of a task with a different form of reinforcement, as seeking validation in itself is seldom a driving force for the teen.
In this case, Amit was promised a toy car to go with his elaborate collection of over 1,000 cars. “I wanted a Mercedes-AMG G 63,” Amit joins in the conversation. “Even though these are toy cars, if there’s any manufacturing defect and they don’t match the correct specifications, he will not purchase the piece,” Amit’s mother, Mahalakshmi Sankaran, keenly clarifies her son’s obsession with cars. “Once Amit sees a particular car model, he’s able to identify the car even from a distance because everything gets registered in his mind,” she adds. “Whenever he sees pictures, he just grabs all the information and when required, he’s able to recall everything,” explains Amit’s father, mentioning that his son has photographic memory.
Amit possesses a rare savant ability of extraordinary memory, through which he’s able to retain and recall specific details, such as what people wore on a particular day, people’s birth dates, the exact street names of where people stay and many such variations. “His memory already includes 500+ birthdays and it continues to expand,” his father adds. “He captures all the events like sensory snapshots and saves them in his mind. Not only the visual part, also the sound. If he hears the sound of your doorbell, many years later if he hears the same sound again, he will immediately remember your doorbell,” says Ramkumar.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects social interaction, communication and behaviour, where individuals face difficulty with social interactions, and repetitive behaviour. However, some individuals with autism also have savant syndrome, which is characterised by exceptional abilities independent of their disability. “A savant is an individual with an exceptional ability in a specific field, such as mathematics, music, or art. They often have an innate talent that far surpasses that of the average person,” explains Meera Ramani, founder of Behaviour Enrichment, a special education school based in Dubai.
According to Meera, the nature of such savant skills is still not fully understood, “but it is believed to be a combination of innate talent and intensive practice”, she adds. “Savants often display exceptional memory, attention to detail, and pattern recognition abilities in their specific field of expertise. This ability may be due to structural or functional differences in the brain, such as increased connectivity between certain regions or decreased inhibitory control in specific areas,” says the autism training specialist. “However, savant skills are usually limited to a specific area and may be accompanied by significant deficits in other cognitive or social domains,” she adds.
Speaking about Amit’s savant skills, Ramkumar says, "Approximately, one in 10 people with autism possess savant skills. It is estimated that one in a million of the total population are savants and almost half of them are autistic.” As Amit gets older, his savant skills will continue to improve. “These skills never diminish,” says Ramkumar. When he was in grade 4, he could remember something that happened in grade 1. Now, he’s in grade 8, and he can still remember what happened in grade 1. There’s no limit to his capacity.”
Even though there’s broader acceptance of neurodiversity, Amit’s parents still feel that there’s a general lack of awareness around these conditions. “When it comes to developmental disorders, we mostly hear people talking about the difficulties and challenges they face. Through the celebration of this world record, we wanted to start a more positive discourse around autism,” says Ramkumar. Amit got diagnosed with the disorder at the age of three. “We struggled a lot initially. He was the first person in our family to be autistic. We were immediately worried about what people around would say because at the time, in India, they only had one term for all of these diverse neurological conditions,” he adds.
However, the fear and worry quickly took a new turn, when they realised there is no cure for such disabilities. “Even scientists are not able to work out how these developmental disorders are caused. There’s no particular reason why this happens and there’s no cure. So, why worry?” says Ramkumar. “If there’s a problem that has no solution, why should we worry? Conversely, if there’s a problem that has a solution, there’s also no need to worry. This is the simple flow chart by Gaur Gopal Das (Indian monk) that I follow in life,” he adds. Not taking away from the initial hardships they faced upon Amit’s diagnosis, his different abilities have now started to feel more like a ‘blessing’ and a ‘gift’ for the parents. “We genuinely feel that he’s been a gift to us. He's so emotional, considerate and attached to us. Always mindful about what we require and is extremely sensitive,” says Ramkumar. “For Amit, everyone is equal,” his mother adds. “He doesn’t lie, he doesn’t judge people, he doesn’t discriminate. He’s unable to do these things. There’s so much he has taught us.”
With their 10-year-journey of figuring out what works best for them as a family to navigate this path, the parents have realised that there are no blanket rules to be followed when it comes to development disorders. “Autism doesn't come with an instruction manual,” says Mahalakshmi. “You just need patience to discover what works best in your situation and give the child the support he or she needs,” says Mahalakshmi. She continues, “Each of us have either some or the other traits of autism. If we self-reflect, we’ll easily recognise this. There are 100 symptoms that are listed for autism spectrum. Amit scored around 98 out of 100. But if I went through the list I’d also score about 40-50. So, it’s just about being more empathetic towards those who have more of those traits.”
The main lesson they’ve learned as parents is to be a lot more present and observant with their child. “It takes some time but you need to understand the reason behind each and every action of your child because the child doesn't know how to communicate with us. Especially, when they are nonverbal, they can't communicate what they feel. So what happens is that it turns into temper tantrums. But there is a reason for them to behave in such a way and we need to understand what’s going on. That’s been the biggest learning,” says Mahalakshmi.
The parents also stress that early intervention is paramount because before the age of three to five is the best time for their learning and development. “After twelve, they're almost like an adult. You can’t change much of their behaviour.” The main challenge is how independent you can make your child. “The more independent they are, the better because parents won’t be around forever. Now, Amit can do most of his tasks on his own. That was our ultimate goal,” Ramkumar signs off.
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