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The Saratoga Falcon

Senior creates documentary about autistic children

Last year in his Anatomy and Physiology class, teacher Kristofer Orre began experimenting with something called the 20 Time program, based on the idea that people working independently on their own pet projects will do extraordinary work.

Orre gave his students the Monday of each week to work on a project of their choosing. Senior Isha Mangal thought about it and decided to devote her time to a cause close to her heart: a documentary about autism.

Mangal has been working with autistic children for over two years, both in India at a school for mentally challenged kids and in the Bay Area with an organization called Son-Rise. The 20 Time project she started in Orre’s class has become a 45-minute documentary titled “Believe In Me” that follows her work with autistic children.

Mangal’s journey began when she traveled overseas to Mathura, India, the summer after her freshman year to volunteer with Kalyanam Karoti, a non-profit organization that works with disabled children. She worked with the Sambal chapter, a school specifically designed to help mentally disabled children.

“It's both amazing and humbling to see what [the children at Sambal] have accomplished despite the societal neglect they face,” Mangal said. “I have seen with my eyes how an autistic person can overcome the disorder with support from [his or her] family and community.”

Mangal has also seen the opposite. She described how some communities in India neglect autistic children because they believe they are violent or useless. But Mangal learned differently at Sambal. 

“While I was there, I was amazed by the amount of progress I saw because a lot of kids had complete conversations with me,” said Mangal. “I saw kids that were writing and drawing things. They were even able to operate sewing machines.”

Mangal was shocked to learn that, despite all their talents and abilities, autistic children in India often have no support from their communities and families. “The kids [I worked with in India] say that their parents are negligent,” Mangal said. “One girl said her neighbor calls her crazy. That’s not true because she has aspirations: She wants to become a doctor. These kids have dreams, and I was really humbled by that.”

During her time at Sambal, Mangal conducted interviews with psychologists, educators and autistic children themselves. Mangal also wrote analysis reports and developed case studies about the children there.

Each case study discussed steps the school could take to help each child reach his or her goals. In designing these personalized curricula, Mangal was able to help fix some of the holes that she saw in the school’s existing educational program.

When Mangal returned from her summers of working with the children at Sambal, she knew she wanted to continue her work with autistic children. Mangal searched on for opportunities to do and finally happened upon the Son-Rise treatment program.

The program’s unique approach appealed to Mangal. Unlike the traditional Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy (ABA), Son-Rise’s treatment views autism as a social issue rather than as a behavioral one. Instead of discouraging children from exhibiting behavior associated with autism, like playing with their hair or spinning blocks, Son-Rise encourages them to do whatever they want. The program’s volunteers are trained to mimic children’s movements so that they feel more comfortable with their actions.

Through the Son-Rise program, Mangal met Jackson, a boy diagnosed with autism at 18 months. None of the treatments his family had previously tried seemed to help, but Son-Rise helped Jackson connect with others around him.

“Every time he looks at me, it’s really rewarding because I feel like I’m connecting with him in his world,” Mangal said. “Communication is the biggest barrier, so I know that I’m impacting him and his family.”

When it came time to film her documentary this past summer, Mangal wanted it to be a culmination  of her work with autistic children and her interest in medicine.

“If we have ample support from the community and from the government, it can really make a big difference for these children and their families,” Mangal said. “I wanted to show people in my documentary that, in the end, these children are as normal as we are.”

The documentary was posted on YouTube in mid-September and has started to garner publicity. At first, the video was only distributed among Mangal’s close friends, but Mangal soon reached out to different autism organizations like Autism Speaks and Autism Treatment Center of America. She hopes to air her documentary on PBS and even send it to some film festivals later in the year.

Mangal thinks that although treating autism is challenging, if society starts to increase its tolerance and acceptance of the condition, attitudes toward it can change.

“I really want to spread awareness about the fact that these children aren’t violent; they’re not useless,” Mangal said. “They’re capable of overcoming whatever they have if they have enough support.”

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