The Coloured Zebra: Adding hues of hope and happiness
Autism Awareness Month: A social impact enterprise in the Capital is imparting the right skill-set and
training to children and young adults with special needs and making a big difference in their lives.
We all know that a zebra is black and white. But there’s a coloured zebra in Delhi that is adding sparkle to the lives of many children and young adults with special needs through innovative interventions. Founded by Vandana Sehgal and her daughter Prerna Gupta in 2006, The Coloured Zebra: Beyond Black & White is a social impact enterprise.
The journey to establish TCZ has been fraught with many learnings, and as Sehgal, a psychologist and counsellor, quips, “The first batch in 2006 had only two children, but over the years, we have gathered strength and trained many children in vocational skills and provided academic support to students across various levels. We aim to create an environment for children and young adults with special needs to find their true strength and enhance it to help them lead a respectable life ahead. We believe that self-dependency, confidence and communication are must-have skills for any individual to succeed. This is where our organization steps in, trains and coaches them so that they walk out of the institute with their head held high.”
Two Helping Hands
The duo has devised many programmes for the benefit of children with special needs. The focus area remains working on their communication, equipping them with social skills, and imparting vocational training. They have been conducting special education classes for all levels, from nursery to class 12 for children with special needs, since TCZ’s inception. “We have a diverse team of educators and counsellors to guide our students. With 100% pass percentage, many of our students have cleared Class 12 board exams with flying colours,” chips in Gupta, an economics graduate, who left a well-paying job in the corporate world to join her mother in the noble mission.
The whole world is their stage
TCZ’s most unique offering is the Therapy Through Theatre programme. Giving us a rundown, Sehgal says, “It is a one of its kind program focusing on holistic development of children and young adults with special needs. It is an amalgamation of occupational therapy, speech therapy and behaviour management. It’s a one-year course combined with physical and mental exercises, with major focus on behaviour improvement.”
It is a need-based programme wherein the child is first assessed in order to gauge his behavioural issues and needs, and then based on the results, the duo individualizes or rather customizes the activities as per his/her needs.
Each session focuses on all the aspects. The class starts with various exercises and slowly moves on to dialogue delivery, which also involves expressive communication. The role-plays are focussed on daily activities, such as travelling in a metro or buying fruits and vegetables to make the children more independent and confident to face the real- world situations. As expressive communication is a major hurdle for special needs children, the programme focuses a lot on this aspect.
“We help them understand various emotions by way of play. Through role-plays, kids learn the craft of expressing themselves and improvising. A few sessions are dedicated to brain gym activities to improve coordination skills and concentration in these kids,” says Sehgal.
She further goes on to explain as to how the programme extensively works on enhancing communication, expressiveness, memory, body posture, along with improvement in fine and gross motor skills. “We indulge the kids in various games to improve their concentration level, memory and logical thinking; activities to work on their fine and gross motor skills; and social interactions to improve their communication, interpersonal skills and expressiveness,” she adds.
As part of the therapy, children are also taught the meaning of sharing their things and respecting each other. The batch size is small with a student-trainer ratio of 3:1. The programme is structured and involves all the therapies and activities that a child with special needs requires. During the first ten months of the course, the focus is on making the child ready to face the audience, and the trainers work on posture, stage presence, speech, eye contact, memory and concentration level. The last two months involve preparing an act, which includes a lot of dialogues (improving a child’s speech and memory) and hand movements and expressions (improving his sensory and expressive skills). The holistic treatment results in overall development which are then showcased to an august gathering.
And as we all know that there’s no cure for autism yet, but the behaviour can be worked upon and channelised by giving a creative outlet to their unbridled energy, believe the duo. And results have been promising in all the cases. “Therapy Through Theatre has proven to be extremely beneficial for individuals on the autism spectrum. We have been using theatre as a medium to work on these issues and parents have seen tremendous changes in their behaviour,” adds Gupta.
She cites the example of one of her students, Arun, a 20-year-old boy with Autism Spectrum Disorder, who attended a six-months Therapy Through Theatre course at TCZ who has benefitted a lot from the programme. “The training did wonders on his personality, and the shy and reserved child started expressing himself, his needs and emotions with confidence. He had extreme sound sensitivity and used to cover his ears at the slightest of sounds, but theatre therapy sessions made him accustomed to social spaces and noises so much so that he has become far more tolerant of sensory overload than before,” says Gupta.
She explains how the problem of rocking and stimming is also resolved through the theatre as it involves a lot of physical activities and games, thus reducing anxiety levels. Rocking means to move backwards and forwards or from side to side; to make somebody/something do this. Stimming means behaviour consisting of repetitive actions or movements of a type that may be displayed by people with developmental disorders, most typically autistic spectrum disorders; self-stimulation.
Theatre therapy also helps kids who have ADHD (Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder). “The physical exercises that are done in every session helps to check their hyperactivity and reduce it tremendously. Brain gym exercises enhance their cognitive skills, thus making the kids sharper and more aware,” explains Sehgal.
The idea was to make therapy for children with special needs more interactive and fun-filled and it came after extensive discussions with parents. “We were saddened to see the plight of parents while understanding and learning about the various therapies available for kids with special needs. Hapless parents would run from one therapist to another with a lot of hope. We were determined to develop a more comprehensive and holistic programme which involved all therapies and activities needed for these kids,” says Sehgal, who is a specialist in behaviour management and extremely passionate about this cause.
Perform and reform
“After the successful completion of the programme, we organize a stage show and invite dignitaries from the field plus other guests. Our last show, held at the YMCA Auditorium in New Delhi, had an audience of 200+ and the children had put up a flawless performance. Apart from skits, we had a fashion show by these kids, group and solo musical performances and dance performances. It is truly a proud moment for all the parents and us,” says a visibly beaming Gupta as she recalls the day.
The previous batches performed at a cultural show on February 24, 2019, and they stunned the audience with their measured acts on stage. The duo was filled with immense pride to see kids with extremely low self-confidence transform into individuals with charming personalities on stage and a child who had no eye-contact or was even shy to talk to people in the room went on to do a ramp walk with utmost confidence and style.
The happy parents credit mother-daughter duo’s patience and perseverance, and their need-based programmes. “The activities that we make the kids do, work wonders on them. There is a tremendous improvement in eye-hand coordination, left-right balancing, concentration levels etc. We ensure that the kids meditate for at least 10 minutes in each class and this brings down their hyperactivity immensely. The physical activities also reduce their hyperactivity, thus making them calmer. Further, kids learn to follow instructions, their listening skills improve too,” says Sehgal.
Catching them young
The programme is for anyone who is between 10 and 20 years of age, but the duo believes, the earlier they start, the better it is. “The main aim of The Coloured Zebra is to help these kids and their parents lead a better and decent life ahead. We believe that these kids have great potential and can do wonders if guided properly, and we are doing whatever we can to make it a reality,” says the duo.
Information that you can use
Name: Therapy Through Theatre
Venue: The Coloured Zebra, Old Rajinder Nagar, New Delhi.
For whom: All children and young adults, especially in the age group of 10-20 years, with special needs.
Duration: A year (12 months)
Cost: Rs 5,000 per month
Other programmes at TCZ:
Communication & Comprehension Programme: It is a six month long personality-development programme for children and young adults with special needs. The curriculum focuses on building their vocabulary, conversational skills, comprehension abilities and social skills.
Computer Training Programme: The programme is based on a one-on-one model, where each child is given personal attention and the curriculum is modified based on his needs. The overall curriculum includes the basics of computers and MS Office. By the end of the course, students are well equipped to make presentations, documents and even excel sheets (which even many of us who are not on the autism spectrum struggle with).
Holistic Enrichment Programme: It is a day-care programme, and includes NIOS (National Institute of Open Schooling) preparation, functional academics, and various co-curricular activities. The team organises a lot of innovative sessions and workshops to improve the students’ comprehension and communication. Various co-curricular activities, such as yoga, martial arts, pottery and floral arrangement are a part of the program and are aimed at making these individuals smart and active. With a special focus on daily activities, field trips are organised to help the children get accustomed to local markets, restaurants, theatres, etc. The program focusses on the overall development of children.
Ability Enhancement Multimedia Programme: This course is conducted in collaboration with AIMS Media, and teaches designing to children to help them build a sustainable independent livelihood. During the session, the kids are provided a first-hand on-job experience which makes it easier for them to fit in companies. It opens doors to employment opportunities in various large and small-scale companies and also gives ample scope for self-employment.
Self-Help Course: The program focuses on activities of daily living, from home management to culinary skills, etiquettes, manners, the concept of money and time, to make children with needs independent by teaching them the correct way of performing daily life activities.