“As a parent, you need to be very confident and very strong about what you’re doing with your child.” Now, this might seem like good advice for any parent or prospective parent, but as Mugdha Kalra—a popular broadcast journalist and media professional with over 20 years of experience in her field—explained in an exclusive interview with us, this advice becomes more crucial than ever if you are raising a child with neurodiversity.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the term neurodiversity, here’s what you should know. The term was coined in 1998 by sociologist Judy Singer to refer to variations in the human brain that affect sociability, learning, attention, mood, and other mental functions. Singer, and journalist Harvey Blume, popularised this term, and soon, the umbrella term was used to talk about people within the autism spectrum, or those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, dysgraphia, and Tourette’s syndrome.
Kalra’s insight into and experience of living with neurodiversity comes through her 11-year-old son, Madhav, who has sensory processing disorder (which essentially falls under the autism spectrum) and ADHD. Like many parents, when Kalra first heard of her child’s diagnosis, her immediate reaction was shock and anger. “I was very upset,” she explained, “and I wanted to wage a war. I wrote stinkers, and I said that how can somebody make a diagnosis after spending 10 minutes with a child?” But now, with experience, Kalra says she can make a similar diagnosis after 10 minutes with a child, because that’s one of the many parenting lessons her journey has taught her.
Autism tales with Mugdha: A way to vent and reach out
From talking to therapists and more experienced parents to researching extensively on autism herself, Kalra did it all after her son was first diagnosed. Her little family of three also made a move from Delhi to Bangalore at the time, and Kalra herself took a career break of about three years. “I was going through my own internal journey of anger, grief, accepting and fighting. But, it was a solo time that my husband, Madhav, and I spent together in Bangalore, and that perhaps gave us the foundation of our relationship and life in the spectrum,” she said. Around 2015-2016, Kalra started Autism Tales with Mugdha, her blog. “That, again, was an exercise to vent, and to perhaps find a common humanity that I was not the only person going through this,” she explained.
The immense response she got for her blog opened new doors for Kalra. “That is when I understood, truly, the power of reaching out to people and having a community of our own. And that’s also when I thought that maybe now’s the time to take the next level of activism,” she said, further explaining what her first two acts of autism activism were all about: “My first level of activism was not hiding my child’s diagnosis and talking to my family and friends about it. Perhaps this was the time when I needed to talk to the world about it.”
It was on this journey through Autism Tales that another realisation dawned on Kalra. “I started to feel that we are creating a support system for our children within our community only,” she explained. “I don’t want all special needs families to only be interacting with special needs families. There is a world out there. My child needs to be part of that world, so there has to be inclusion. And how will inclusion start if you are going to stay in your autism villages, if you’re going to stay in your cocooned schools, if you’re going to stay in your inclusive, but not integrated setups?” It was with this realisation that the idea of Kalra’s new book, Not That Different, emerged.
Sara, Madhav, and the kids who make an inclusive world
“Not That Different is a children-led movement into inclusion and understanding neurodiversity. We wanted young children, neurotypicals, to understand what neurodiversity is, because the questions that a young child may have about a disability or disorder, are very innocent,” Kalra explained with an example: “A child in the park may ask his mother why is that other child on a wheelchair, or why is that child shrieking right now? And they won’t judge it, because for them the shriek would mean that child is upset. For an adult, that shriek could mean assumptions like ‘that’s a misbehaved child’, or ‘the child has discipline issues’, or ‘the child may teach my child things that I don’t want him to learn’.”
Kalra also believes that helping children understand neurodiversity can help create inclusive as well as integrated setups, whether they are at schools or later at workplaces. And so, she collaborated with Bookosmia and their incredible team of illustrators to create a comic book of sorts for children (and teachers, parents, and grownups too) that is more than just a teaching aid.
“We made Madhav’s persona into a comic character,” she explained. “Bookosmia already has a mascot called Sara. So then, Sara and Madhav came together and they started going to school, art classes, play dates, meetings in the park—and that’s where the entire conversation takes place—and then they have these questions that most kids have.” The ebook Not That Different is already out on Bookosmia’s platform, and the comic strips are also up on Not That Different’s Instagram handle. The book is going to be published this month, and Kalra hopes both parents and schools will pick it up.
Kalra believes this type of movement to raise awareness about neurodiversity is important because it’s the only way to create a more inclusive world. “In a few years from now, one in every five will be neurodiverse,” she explains. “And so you will be encountering a lot of people who are neurodiverse. You will be meeting them, you will be working with them, you’ll be studying with them, and you’ll be dating them. So, you need to understand them.”