Can you imagine a charming, lively, 28-year-old go getter, taking up a career dedicated to ‘autism awareness’ and ‘autism acceptance’? Meet Vauhini Venugopal who dedicates all her waking hours to autism research in India. So passionate is she in educating those with autism and their families that she abhors words like ‘patients’, ‘treatment’ and ‘autistic children’.
As an eight-year-old, Vauhini had her first stint with adversity and challenges. An avid horse rider, she enjoyed equestrian sport, but had to give it up due to dual knee surgeries. Ironically, one of her knees got dislocated while playing badminton, and not on one of her rides.
Married to a sound technologist, she is focused and knows exactly what she wants to do for those with autism, and those around them. To quote her, “Educate… educate them all.”
Vauhini has also trained in Carnatic music, but enjoys all genres of music, from rock to Bollywood to Tamil film songs. Her exposure to the world of advertising and marketing took her to the television medium, but with an insatiable appetite for challenge, she gave up a lucrative and glamourous career in the broadcast media to work with children — more specifically, children with autism.
Urged by her lawyer mother, who used to work with Spastics Society of Karnataka, Vauhini did her Post Graduate Diploma in Autism in 2005, and in 2007 set up her Learning Centre for Autism — Bhavishya. “My parents have always been supportive. Whether it was horse riding or getting in and out of media or my current work, they have been with me all the way. I am their only child but they given me so much independence that I’m grateful to them,” she says with a warm smile.
Working on a structured programme for children with autism in Ottawa, Canada for four months fuelled her interest in the subject. “The Canadian government supports autism in a big way. With government intervention, awareness levels are naturally higher,” she says. Back home, it was time to bust some myths. “I was mortified to hear insensitive remarks like, ‘A child with autism has no life’ or ‘The mother is responsible for the child’s condition’. I was determined to set the record straight,” she explains.
According to her, though a child with autism can be diagnosed as early as 18 months, most kids are diagnosed much later due to ignorance of the parents and caregivers.
“Individuals with autism are impaired in areas of socialisation and communication, and hence they are unable to pick up speech, like other kids do. They are not speech impaired. Given the proper intervention at the right time, they can speak like any of us,” she says, adding that it’s also a myth that all kids with autism have great mathematical skills or music/rhythm sense.
“Only savants possess these skills. Yes, it’s easier for them to understand logically engineered programmes because they function best with structure. It is not as if all of them are unable to articulate their basic needs. Through proper intervention and focus, these difficulties can be overcome,” she says. Explaining the work of Bhavishya, she says the real challenge lies in educating society.
Her dream for Bhavishya is “to help people understand that just as how some people are tall and some are short, some have autism.”