(Children with autism are often misunderstood as 'troublemakers' and as a result mistreated. Change can only come from dispelling misinformation and educating yourself and those around you. FIT is republishing this story in light of recent events in Ghaziabad.)
My earliest memories of Madhav is of him running into our house, heading straight to the room where we kept the puzzles, throwing them all on the floor and then proceeding to separate and make them. Madhav was three at the time, the same age as my daughter Ahana and their friend Arjun. They went to school together, they played side-by-side and they holidayed together.
It was Ahana and Arjun who would tell us not to disturb him, or try to help him when he did his puzzles, or that he didn't like being touched.
At the age of 3, kids just get it. They observe and they accept. Madhav, for Ahana and her friends, was not that different.
I often wonder if Madhav and Ahana had become friends now, when they are 12, would that understanding have come with ease? Or would the adults preconceived notions of what is 'normal behaviour' have tainted her world-view?
Mugdha Kalra is a force of nature. She's a journalist, a content creator, a writer, an autism advocate and mon to Madhav, the central character in the comic strip called 'Not That Different'. That little boy with the orange T Shirt and headphones around his neck is Madhav. He's 10 in the book, is in a new integrated school and he has an inquisitive little girl called Sara as his classmate.
"Why does Madhav not say hello? Why is he looking at the picture upside down? Why does he wear headphones?" Sara asks.
Mugdha has been actively writing about Madhav's journey on her blog 'Not That Different', she's contributed videos to FIT that detail her journey parenting Madhav, she's educated herself in the process and has become what you would call an 'autism activist'. But this comic strip came from another place. Of seeking acceptance for Madhav not just among the autism community, but also among the larger 'neurotypical' world.
"I realised that while I was doing a lot of advocacy among parents, they were all from the special-needs community. While there is a lot of talk of creating special needs schools, special needs villages for neurodiverse children, but soon enough I realised that this is a world made of children like him or families like ours," says Mugdha, adding,
"That's when it struck me that I don't want to create a separate world for him, I want this world to be his. And everybody in this world should accept him the way he is."Mugdha Kalra
Not That Different came together when Mugdha met Nidhi Mishra, founder of a publishing platform called Bookosmia. Archana Mohan, an award-winning children's author gave a voice to Madhav and Sara and Aayushi Yadav, an illustrator, brought the characters to life.
Nidhi says she sees the comic as aimed at both parents and children. It's a conversation starter and for parents to also look back at their childhood and acknowledge that we were all different in our own way, and so our children don't have to tick every box in the 'normal' category.
For Archana, it was never about writing for a certain age-group. "When you walk into a mall with your child and you see another child who is clapping his hands, or screaming, or having a meltdown, you have two choices -either you drag your child away, or you choose to answer their questions," says Archana.
The writing is simple, its easy to read, its beginning to tickle the curiosity of your neurotypical child about their neurodiverse friend.
"A child who flips through the book should be able to read it, and then begin to have questions. We did not want to write a book in which everything fits neatly, everything is happily ever after, they read it, they throw it, and they never think about it. We wanted a book that does not answer all your questions. We wanted the book to start a conversation," adds Archana.
For Mugdha, it's the curiosity of Madhav's friends and cousins that inspired her to take on this project.
"Madhav's cousins would get offended, that why is he not playing with me, why is he acting this way, why is he shouting, and when I explained why and told them they should take the lead and he will follow, they suddenly felt this sense of responsibility and they became Madhav's protectors and teachers."Mughda Kalra
Autism is a spectrum, and while in childhood their quirks and behaviours stand out, as neurodiverse kids grow up, these become invisible disorders. You will go on to work with people on the spectrum, befriend them, date them, marry them and if you don't understand them, that's when problems begin to occur, says Mugdha. She wishes to create a world that understands, accepts and integrates with Madhav's world.
Not That Different is a pioneering effort in children's publishing, placing the onus of inclusion on the mainstream and viewing the world of neurodiversity from the eyes of a neurotypical child.