x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Special children who make my day

Nipa Bhuptani grew tired of teaching in kindergarten and sought 'something more'. She found it in the challenging world of autism.

Nipa Bhuptani, right, the head of the Autism Department of Future Centre For Special Needs.
Nipa Bhuptani, right, the head of the Autism Department of Future Centre For Special Needs.

Wednesdays, Nipa Bhuptani concedes, can be a bit boring. This is the day the children from the autism department she heads at Abu Dhabi's Future Centre for Special Needs are taken out to a mall. So Mrs Bhuptani is left with the paperwork in her tiny office beside the classrooms.

"When I am an hour into work, I start to think, 'This is too quiet'," she says. "It is the most dull day because they're all gone." It is 18 years since Mrs Bhuptani, 43, moved to the UAE capital from her native India. For more than 10 years she worked in mainstream kindergartens but finally decided that she needed "something more". "I've found that in what I'm doing," she says now. "I don't know why I'm here, but I know that I love doing this job. My job is a challenge every day, and I need that."

Most days, the challenge involves managing and motivating the eight staff who look after the 12 children, aged five to 14, in the autism department. It is not easy work. Children with autism tend to have difficulty communicating and poor social skills, and some can be aggressive. This makes it difficult for the teachers, teaching assistants, speech and language specialists and occupational therapists whom Mrs Bhuptani supervises.

The key, she says, is to set small goals each day and celebrate when they are achieved. "We make a big deal of any success that we see," she says. "Motivating staff is a very important part because this job can take a lot out of you." On a typical day, Mrs Bhuptani arrives shortly before 8am, when the children come in. She sits with her staff and discusses each child and the progress he or she making. After lessons start, she spends much of her time in the classroom with the children and coaching the teachers.

If a teacher is not doing things right, she says, "I have to do it for her so she can do it. It's completely hands-on, and it makes me stay in the classroom a lot." Mrs Bhuptani is a board-certified associate behaviour analyst, a title she gained after several years of studying and 1,000 hours of experience. She employs the techniques of applied behaviour analysis, taking ideas derived from experiments and using them to improve individual behaviour.

For the past year at the centre she has been employing the Competent Learner Model, a scientific regime that uses applied behaviour analysis to teach individuals with special needs. Mrs Bhuptani trained in the technique in California. This programme, she says, has had "a lot of success" in improving behaviour and is being expanded at the centre. At the start of the year there were many children with aggressive or self-harming behaviour, she says. One child would hit a person on average every 30 minutes, even cracking someone's rib once.

"At the end of the year we brought it down to very, very low intensity," she says, explaining that children would be taught to say "I must keep my hands to myself", and ask for things appropriately. "These are the rewards." After the children leave, at 1.15pm, Mrs Bhuptani stays behind for a couple of hours, doing more paperwork. She often receives visitors in the hope that raising the centre's profile will encourage financial support. The centre relies on charitable contributions as well as fees and, because there is insufficient provision throughout the country, there is a waiting list for places. The need for more centres like hers, she says, is "vast".

"I can be with the CEO of a company one minute, and the next minute be in the toilet with a child who's having a tantrum," she says, laughing. "I have to jump from one thing to the next quite quickly." Counselling parents "to let them not give up on their child" is another duty. Autism can be hard for them to come to terms with, Mrs Bhuptani says, because a child may look normal and be capable of impressive feats, such as completing a complex puzzle, yet be unable, say, to ask for a biscuit.

"It's not like other special needs, where all their skills are below a certain level. It may be patchy," she says. "Some will repeat the whole Shrek dialogue with the exact intonation, but if you ask a question such as: "What did you do yesterday?' he won't be able to answer," she says, referring to the computer-animated comedy film. "That's something parents find very difficult to cope with." Mrs Bhuptani, originally from Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat, is married to a banker, Ajay, and has a 16-year-old son, Arjun, who does not have special needs.

While she says being away from family in India is one of the few downsides of life in the UAE - she visits her mother in Ahmedabad only twice a year - she has strong family connections in the Emirates. Five years ago, her younger brother Nilesh Gandhi, married with two sons, moved to Dubai, and she often visits him at the weekend. "We also have a lot of family spending time with us here," Mrs Bhuptani says. "My husband's dad lives a couple of months with us each year. The house is always full of people."

Mr and Mrs Bhuptani have remained in the UAE because of the quality of life and education, and the benefits this has brought their son. Other than the separation from her family in India, she says, "being here fulfils everything". Mrs Bhuptani believes that living in the UAE has given her son, born in Abu Dhabi, a unique outlook: "My son was fortunate to be born here and to go to school here because from the first year he met so many different nationalities and cultures.

"I would ask him where his friends were from and he would say: 'From Abu Dhabi. Everybody is from Abu Dhabi.' He believes it doesn't matter where you're from. That's the biggest thing we've been able to give our son from being here. He sees the world very differently from us." dbardsley@thenational.ae