Shafakat was moved to start a school for special children in Shehr-e-Khas by the plight of her autistic child, reports Umar Mukhtar
Shafakat, 42, sits in her office and monitors the activities of children sitting in classrooms from a CCTV. Shafakat is an administrator of a school Learning Edge where she takes care of autistic and other mentally retarded children.
“We do not teach them how to get good grades but how to be independent and self-reliant,” says Shafakat. “These children need rehabilitation, not grades.”
Currently, there are 12 children in the school, which was started by Shafakat herself. The inspiration for the school was her own son, who also is autistic.
“Behind the establishment of Learning Edge is the pain of a mother,” says Shafakat.
In 1999, Shafakat and her family were happy to welcome a baby boy in Dubai. She named him Ibrahim. The happiness, however, was short-lived. After a few months, Shafakat found Ibrahim behaving abnormally. Initially, they took him to doctors who diagnosed him as a mentally retarded child.
For 10 years Ibrahim was treated for the illness, but then the doctors gave up. Ibrahim was diagnosed with Autism.
Medically, autism is a condition where such children need early intervention for rehabilitation. “Early intervention is must. If a child does not get it in time, it is very difficult to get him or her back on track,” says Shafakat.
The common sign that defines the autistic children is the hyperactivity in their behaviour. Sometimes it varies from child to child.
“We had admitted Ibrahim in an early intervention school in Dubai when he was 4 years old. He was treated as a special child and taken care of in a mentally retarded class,” says Shafakat.
In 2010, as soon as Ibrahim was diagnosed with autism, his parents approached the school to get his class changed. Ibrahim was kept among the autistic children. “He got good care there as per the procedure and was showing improvement in his behaviour.”
But in 2011, the family moved back home, to Kashmir. And here the big question for Shafakat was Ibrahim’s rehabilitation. “Obviously, this was a worrying factor for me as a mother.”
Shafakat began to hunt for the institutions meant for the specially-abled children. Though there were not many but she could spot some. She went there with her son.
“What I saw didn’t make me happy. I could spot any difference between a common school and them,” says Shafakat. “There was no segregation of the children on the basis of their conditions. Down’s syndrome children, autistic children, mentally retarded children, all were together.”
Shafakat was taken aback. But as a mother, she was helpless and concerned for her child. When she could not find a suitable place for Ibrahim, she had to unwillingly admit her son in one such centre. But once there, Ibrahim’s condition went from bad to worse.
“In Kashmir, there are no facilities for such children. What doctors do is give such children medication mostly sedatives which is in no way a remedy. Only rehabilitation is its remedy,” says Shafakat.
According to her she never gave her son medication and would not do so to keep him in school. Thus started her own struggle for establishing an institute that will take care of such children.
With the help of extended family members most of whom are settled abroad and with her own savings, Shafakat decided to open up an institute. It took her own time as it required many things in addition to resources. Finally, in 2019, she took a rented accommodation in a downtown area of Srinagar and opened the school.
“I had a saving of Rs 25 lakh that I invested in the institution,” she says.
Now she employs a staff of 12 people. “We have a speech therapist, physiotherapist, occupational therapist, physical educator, special educator and helpers who take care of these kids.”
“Two types of people come to me. One, those who think specially-abled children are good for nothing and think investing money on them is a waste. Most of them are not even willing to pay the school dues of such children,” regrets Shafakat. “Secondly there are those families who are well off. They shift everything including their businesses outside just to admit their children in a school where they will be rehabilitated.”
Another thought that prompted Shafakat and persuaded her to take such an initiative was a tragedy that she is witness to. The fate of one of Shafakat’s relatives who was mentally unsound pinches her all the time.
“I had a relative in Budgam area who till his 50s was looked after by his parents. But once they died, he one day did not return home. And after some days his mutilated body was found near a canal.” So I always had this question lurking in my mind, what about these children when their parents will be no more?”
Shafakat is also concerned about the survival of her school. She has almost invested all savings in it.
First, when the thought crossed her mind that she will establish an institute which will take care of special children, she went to every parent of such children and asked them to join her in her effort but she got a cold response. Then she turned to authorities, there also she found no takers for her idea.
“In fact, I personally met all revered personalities and many NGOs for help but no one extended their hand,” she says. “ I feel the society, in general, is ignorant of this grave issue or people are skeptical.”
Shafakat’s dream of transforming her school into an institution where such children would be looked after depends on the help she would receive from society.