I must mention that I had had this vision that I would make Noel a good tennis player when we had started out...A lack of interest in wanting to learn and the usually typical joy of figuring out a new trick or skill appeared to be almost absent (in Noel). Then, how did I start?
And thus begins a father's quest to teach tennis to his autistic son. However, through the process, Debashis Paul, a Gurugram-based marketing strategy consultant, says, "he taught me more than I was teaching him."
Paul reminisces life with his neurodivergent son, Noel, and the ordinary adventures they had together in his new book, 'I Have Autism And I Like To Play G̶o̶o̶d̶ Bad Tennis'.
"Because I have experienced this hands-on, I know what challenges parents would be facing in relation to not only raising children with autism, but also in terms of dealing with educators, professionals, and even doctors."Debashis Paul
FIT speaks to Debashis Paul about his book, life with Noel, and what parents should know about raising neurodivergent kids.
Learning and Unlearning: Parenting a Neurodivergent Child
Debashis Paul explains that autism is a very pervasive issue that can cause a person to have difficulty in learning, socialising, and even small tasks that may come very easily to others, like sitting in a class comfortably with other people and picking up on non-verbal cues.
"As a kid, he (Noel) would avoid being around other kids his age, but by the time he was 16, he transformed into a supremely confident, and happy person," says Paul.
"It's a myth that people with autism are doomed to be loners, and he helped me understand that with time, exposure and encoragement, behaviour can be transformed."Debashis Paul
We often don't tend to realise how much of our daily lives hinges on social interactions.
"It's not just networking and gatherings, From education to sport, to work, our whole lives are built on social interactions," says Paul.
"So, if you have a social disability, it becomes very tough to go through everyday. But it is possible to overcome it"Debashis Paul
And so, to help Noel polish these skills, Paul and his wife adopted unconventional methods. For one, Paul says, they would take Noel out with them wherever they went, and he would constantly speak to Noel, reassuring him, telling him things like, 'See, these people have come here to play, just like you. They're okay with you being here, and so you need to be okay with them as well.'
"I would call them, not conversations, but commentary on life, that I would constantly give him."Debashis Paul
Sports was another tool they used to help Noel. It started with swimming.
Learning to swim with others around in a public pool can be an ordeal for the most neurotypical person, let alone for someone with Autism.
"He was awkward at first," says Paul, adding, " he also had trouble with hand-eye coordination. So there was also a physical challenge. " But that didn't stop them.
"His mother is a good swimmer, and she would make sure to always take him to the pool. Even though he would just be there, not swimming and not willing to learn, she would take him and just let him be."Debashis Paul
"It wasn't that he was unhappy. He was happy just splashing around in the water. It was only after 5 years that he started swimming."
Noel then became so good at swimming that he went on to represent Delhi in Special Olympics Bharat.
‘I Want to Play Bad Tennis’: The World Through Noel’s Eyes
The book's title, 'I Have Autism And I Like To Play G̶o̶o̶d̶ Bad Tennis', Debashis Paul shares, came from something his son Noel once said.
He explains, he used tennis as a means to help Noel hone his hand-eye coordination, but also learn other elementary concepts like gravity and momentum, and counting.
"But then tennis became a great source of joy for him," he adds. "He couldn't wait to play it."
"If I was travelling on work, he (Noel) would call me and say, when are you going to come back, and when am I going to play bad tennis?"Debashis Paul
"That was his way of saying, why do I have to be good at everything? Why can't I just do it because I enjoy it?"
Paul says, "Sometimes he would come up with such sharp insights, and extraordinary viewpoints that perhaps you and I wouldn't think of."
Speaking of one such instance, he adds, "As parents when we introduce kids to sports or lessons we always hope they would excel in it, win every match. We put so much pressure on the child. But on a child like Noel, that sort of pressure just doesn't work."
Noel, on the other hand, didn't want that pressure, and he just didn't understand the point of competition.
"He would say, 'why do I have to defeat someone else?' The notion of winning was also something that he wasn't comfortable with."Debashis Paul
"There was a certain humaneness and innocence in him, and the point of view that came out of that changed my worldview in many ways also," Paul adds.
‘It Takes a Village’: A Lesson for All Parents
"The first ten years of our journey was very hard," says Paul.
He goes on to talk about how, because there was so little awareness about Autism among even medical practitioners in India, his wife and he had to do a lot of their research themselves.
"This condition is a very puzzling neurobiological issue," he says.
"There is no one therapy or treatment for this issue. You can only reduce some of the symptoms, train the child with practice to improve their learning and social behaviour etc."
Speaking of some things he learnt along the way, that he would like other parents to know as well, Paul says, building early strategies for interventions tailored to your child's needs can help improve their condition considerably in the long run.
"Help train them according to their interests and passions, while making sure they feel secure."Debashish Paul
"The child must feel accepted by not just their parents, but everyone around. The parents, siblings, grandparent, they all have to come together and work as a team. It's very difficult otherwise."
Neurodivergent or not, parents must mould themselves to their kid's needs and not expect the other way round, he adds.
"When a child is born, everyone has such great expectations. In our society there is this notion that our child must do better than us. These need to be shed," he says.
In the book, Paul calls it the 'recalibration of your ambitions'.
"If you are to give the best to your child, it won't happen by giving in to these pressures. That's why the book is not targeted just to kids with autism, it's for everyone."Debashish Paul
('I Have Autism And I Like To Play G̶o̶o̶d̶ Bad Tennis', published by Westland Books released on 17 April.)