(MENAFN - Muscat Daily) The gentle hand outstretched in greeting is expectant but unsure. ''Hello,'' a small voice ventures, as if to seal the deal.
As the salutation is returned, there is the faintest hint of a smile breaking out on Arjun's cherubic face.
''Hi,'' he says again, this time to end the conversation. Introductory conversations with autistic children rarely go much further. ''He doesn't have the vocabulary of a 14 year old, but he has language enough to make his needs and wants understood,'' Aruna, his beaming mother, says.
Later, she mouths ''left, right, left'' as Arjun, looking decidedly more assured, leads the drumbeat march declaring open the third edition of the Special Children Group's (SCG) Sports and Fun Fest.
The annual event, held on the lawns of Indian School Ghubra, is a celebration of the abilities of autistic children.
An effort to, as it were, ''see the able, not the label''. Over a cheery evening of games designed to improve the children's fine and gross motor skills, spatial awareness, and inculcate also the important lessons of teamwork, sharing and understanding the rules.
But,''basically, it's a day out for the children and parents,'' says Dr Narayan Ramachandran, who describes himself simply as a 'volunteer' for the group.
Spurred on by an energetic team of blue-shirted volunteers, the steady burst of encouragement over the microphone and a continual chorus of applause, the children brought out the maracas for a round of calisthenics, gamely tackled obstacle courses, nimbly undid hard-set rope knots and cantered across finish lines hand-in-hand with their partners.
''We try to show that these children also have the ability to perform well if given the chance. Of course, it takes a lot of effort and time.
Every Friday and Saturday for the past two months, we've practised and dealt with the mood variations. But the children come and participate enthusiastically. They don't give up till the end.''
Neither do the parents or the volunteers, for whom there are separate games on offer. The final prize however is the same. Handsome trophies notwithstanding, the real goal is to have the SCG 'family' come together for ''an evening of instruction, mutual support and unwinding''.
The SCG began as a support group for parents of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), to promote free exchange of stories and ideas. In February 2010, it went virtual with the creation of an online group to pool together information and resources for parents.
It is today a voluntary collective of 44 member families (that found each other ''by word of mouth''), mainly from India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan but, ''we've also had families from Oman, Philippines and Australia'' the majority of whom have been a part of the SCG since the beginning.
''For the last three and a half years, the group has met at the ISG every Friday morning. The children are taught fine motor skills, rules and values. Their parents are taken to a different room wherein they exchange ideas.
We also have professionals like nutritionists and speech therapists come in and deliver workshops to train teachers and parents.'' Dr Subhasis Sarkar, an occupational therapist with Al Masarrah Hospital, has been associated with the group from the beginning.
With his wife, a therapist at Khoula Hospital, he has played ''mainly a supporting role'', referring new families to the SCG, guiding its volunteers and bringing in professionals to talk to the parents. ''Sometimes we identify if the child is having problems related to autism and, if so, turn the parents on to the group. Once they come here, they are encouraged to come regularly,'' Dr Sarkar says.
''The children need therapy constantly. One in 88 children around the world is autistic. It's a growing problem and it's going undiagnosed.''
The earlier the intervention, following diagnosis then (''ideally before the age of three''), Dr Ramachandran says, can better the outcome for the child in many situations.
''Since autism is not one single disorder, intervention depends on where the child lies on the spectrum and to what extent he needs the support. It's not that we promise that everything will be normal, but there is at least the hope that we can bring about some change in the lives of these children.
''Intervention has made a difference. That's why these parents are here year after year.'' In between cheering for his daughter, S Shanmugham, a long-time member, says, ''Each child is unique.
Mostly, they lack or have delayed social development skills. Normally, they don't have much opportunity to interact with others. They won't initiate communication. But they are learning even if they aren't exhibiting it. At some point of time, it will come out. We should not deprive them of the opportunity to learn.
''This forum is really a virtual social environment, where the volunteers can create opportunities for them to interact with each other. If you directly ask the children to do therapy without any motivation, they won't. Here, there is positive reinforcement. And they love these activities.''
And over time, there is even active interest and involvement. ''This year, my daughter started a shopping list. She wanted a white shirt and white shoes for the sports day.'' For the children who are either ''overloaded or underloaded, hyper- or hypo-sensitive,'' Shanmugham calls group events like Sports Day ''multi-sensory therapy'' (auditory, visual etc).
It's also therapeutic for the parents, who have been known to withdraw into themselves after their child is diagnosed with ASD. ''I've seen the parents go into a state of depression,'' Dr Sarkar says. ''They are under a lot of stress. They feel ashamed. They need to unwind and this is a platform to relax and vent. ''They get the strength to open up,'' Shanmugham agrees.
''It's become a family.'' And it's always looking to grow, Dr Ramachandran says, ''Whoever is interested can come and we are always willing to help them out.'' But he cautions against an one-size-fits-all mentality.
''Each child is unique and needs a different approach.'' Dr Sarkar adds, ''There's a proven model here. And if anyone wants to adopt it, they can. If it works here, it can work elsewhere with the same sustained effort.
''You need the parents to respond, a dedicated group of volunteers and a committed support group.'' Though there are splinter groups working on autism, Dr Ramachandran says there isn't one umbrella society or association.
''Through the Omani Women's Association (OWA), we have learned that there are many Omani families who would like assistance. The OWA has been very enthusiastic about taking this forward.'' Anisa Saleh al Raisi, a representative of OWA, said she found the efforts of the children and volunteers ''amazing''.
''I thank God we have real good volunteers like them in our society and I pray SCG will be able to achieve its noble goals. ''At the OWA, we are working to help all children, whether they have special needs or not.
''We've taken up the subject with Dr Ramachandran. And discussions are going on with the Ministry of Social Development to establish an association