The nationwide lockdown to combat the spread of COVID-19 is not going to stop Suhasini Malde from checking in with her children — she has 25, and they can’t wait to return to school. Ashiana Institute for Autism, set up by Malde in 1997, is more than a place for the children to learn different skills — it is home. And in Innocentism, her book about how Ashiana came about, the 63-year-old architect, interior decorator and social worker candidly writes about her own journey of self-discovery and empathy.
As a child, she was overlooked by her family for not being conventionally pretty, her inter-caste marriage taught her a thing or two about being treated unkindly, and in the following years, her struggles with conceiving taught her that perhaps she could redefine motherhood for herself. “I wanted to start my book by telling my own story for a very simple reason: in India, most people don’t think they need to involve themselves in social causes unless it directly affects them. Another misconception about social work is that it requires you to leave your old life behind, wear khadi, carry a jhola — that’s not true. I have my own practice and my lifestyle but it is possible to help those who might need my help,” says Malde.
She first wrote Innocentism in her mother tongue, Marathi, because she wanted the story to reach smaller towns and villages in Maharasthra; it was published by Rajhans Prakashan in 2008. The first print run sold out in less than a year and the book went on to win six awards, including the Pune Sahitya Parishad award. A few years ago, it was translated into English by Dr Priyadarshini N Gokhale,
a family physician based in Mumbai. It was
“Ashiana began with six students in a one-bedroom flat in Malad, and two address changes and 23 years later, we’re still operating. It has been a lesson in patience and determination for everyone involved.
These students possess an immense capacity for love, they really are pure of heart and the more you treat them as ‘normal’, the faster they learn and grow. So many parents are willing to spend so much money on their neurotypical children’s education but not their autistic one — this must change,” says Malde.
Located in Sahar, Andheri East, Ashiana’s curriculum is divided into a number of programmes that have been developed by Malde over the years with the help of her team of occupational therapists, special educators, speech therapists and psychologists. “Each child who is admitted to the school is assessed over a number of weeks so that we can determine the level of development the child is at. We have one teacher for three children, and we try to create individualised programmes for everyone so that they can reach their own potential. There are academic classes, dance, music, yoga, in addition to a range of activities that will equip them to become as independent as possible. If you see the world through their eyes, you’ll learn that they’re not the ones who are different, we are,” says Malde. mayana,