Beating Autism with Face Masks!
Beating Autism with Face Masks!
Detected very early on, the condition not only makes it difficult for children to express themselves and be empathetic towards others but it also makes them repetitive with their body movements and respond unusually to certain sights, sounds and smell that may seem perfectly normal to us.
Among the several challenges that an autistic child faces, there are three big ones – the inability to make eye contact, short attention span and lack of empathy.
While neurologists across the world are working to solve these three challenges, a theatre specialist, professor and artist, Dr. Parasuram Ramamoorthi has achieved this using a very simple tool that is seen very often in the theatre- a face mask!
How does it work?
“First I used a physical mask with the children but the material of the mask was not comfortable to many. It either irritated them or gave them a sensory overload. So, out of 10 children, 4- 5 did not like it and removed it immediately. It was then that I thought of the Kathakali and the Yakshagana face mask,” explains Dr. Parasuram Ramamoorthi.
Ramamoorthi himself is a theatre professor, so his familiarity with the art form runs deep and he reveals that for an autistic child to get his face painted is not a small thing. Their first reaction is to get scared and run away.
“Then I will tell them that -okay will do it with your brother, sibling or the father-and once they see the outcome, they begin to like it and slowly start enjoying it. And if we do it before a mirror, the child starts making faces, so we draw a monkey, tiger or lion on the face. If the children are familiar with the story of Hanuman, Ram, and Krishna- we draw these pictures and if they are western oriented – we draw western figures like Spiderman or Dora,” says Ramamoorthi.
The face mask not only encourages the child to get into the character but also helps the child focus and connect with the painter, which is otherwise impossible. According to Dr. Ramamoorthi, the biggest change that the exercise brings about in the autistic child’s life is to increase his/ her bonding with parents and siblings. He explains further by saying that when the parents started involving in the activity with their child, the child began looking straight into the face of the parent, something they had never done before.
“Some of the children looked at their mother for the first time in their lives and one child, in fact, looked at the mother and said, ‘mother your bindi is gone!’ It was the first time that the child had spoken to the mother,” he informs.
He further adds that the whole exercise is done on the back of a story like for eg: ‘There was a lion looking for water’. The child not only listens carefully but also enacts it later. In fact, Dr. Ramamoorthi adds that sometimes they improvise as well, so the lion becomes water or it may also become an elephant. “We don’t worry about it,” he says.
Now, the biggest question is that does this process help a child recover completely? Ramamoorthi says that autism is a lifelong condition so it cannot be cured, but it does definitely make them more independent and self-confident.
Apart from the face painting concept, the theatre professor-turned-therapist, who runs an organisation called Velvi in Madurai, also conducts workshops with autistic young teens, in which they undergo grooming and are taught modelling. Last year, during their annual ‘Art for Autism’ festival in Mumbai, they had organised a special session that included ramp walk.
The artist’s organisation also runs an online course that trains parents and teachers on how to deal with autism. The course now has students from all over the world including Saudi Arabia, the USA, Singapore, Malaysia and the UK.