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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Achintya Majithia: Master of his own mind

Achintya Majithia: Master of his own mind

A 19-year-old opens up about living his childhood with Asperger's Syndrome and the extraordinary transformation he has experienced

Achintya Majithia’s special needs were repeatedly misunderstood by his school authorities as a discipline issue. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/MintPremium
Achintya Majithia’s special needs were repeatedly misunderstood by his school authorities as a discipline issue. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

“I am telling you, aunty, if my past was a thing, I would just break it," says Achintya Majithia. “If it were a person, I would want it dead. I would get rid of it."

As soon as he says this, he realizes he is beginning to get very angry and takes a step back. Achintya and I have been meeting and texting for two weeks now, revisiting the turmoil of his years as a schoolboy. He has connected me to his teachers, therapists, parents and school principal. Sometimes he is pleased to hear what they said about him, at other times it triggers memories that upset him.

“People who want to be big, they don’t remember petty things," Achintya says to me, reiterating a lesson he repeats to himself every day. Achintya is a first-year law student at the Amity Law School in Noida, adjoining the Capital. It has been just a few weeks since he started college. He tells me that he already has four good friends.

Achintya is proudest when he talks about his friends. There was a time when making friends was a serious challenge for him. Just being able to go to school and return home without being bullied or provoked into violence was an achievement.

“I have spent a lot of time sitting in the principal’s room in the last 14 years," says Monica Majithia, Achintya’s mother. “All I knew was that my child was in a mess and I couldn’t ignore it," says Monica. “I had to fight the hopelessness and deep despair that we had begun to feel."

At the age of 7, Achintya was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). The term Asperger’s Syndrome came to stay with the family. Despite the diagnosis, Achintya’s special needs were repeatedly misunderstood by his school authorities as a discipline issue.

Achintya has always done well in school academically. He loves history and consumes information in a nerdy way. His overwhelming challenge has been anger management and social interactions. In school and at home, there were repeated episodes of extreme violence that seemed inexplicable. Without support and intervention, Achintya felt crippled. He could not fit in anywhere.

Achintya remembers the first place where he found an anchor. When he was 11 years old, he stayed out of school for a year and attended remedial classes at Orkids, a multidisciplinary clinic that provides support to children with special needs. “I remember Geet ma’am," Achintya recounts fondly. “She supported me in the worst phase of my life."

Besides working directly with the child, Geet Oberoi, a special educator who started Orkids, helped Achintya’s parents connect to a network of support within the city. She referred Achintya to a team of experts that included psychiatrists, counsellors, occupational therapists and special educators. Together with all of them, a road map was drawn up. Achintya had suffered for too long without help.

“Their school years are typically the toughest phase for children with Asperger’s Syndrome," say Oberoi. “It is a sad, unfortunate reality that they learn behaviours in school that they spend their later years unlearning. The physical scars heal, but the trauma stays."

Sitting across the table with me at a coffee shop in a mall, Achintya insists that he will only drink water. He has had his quota of junk food for the day, and he follows his fitness routine strictly.

“As I grew up, I learnt to accept social realities," says Achintya. “In junior school, boys would pick on me and bully me in extreme ways. I always seemed to be in trouble and my teachers would insult and humiliate me. They had no clue how to deal with special needs."

After a year of remedial intervention at Orkids, Achintya was accepted by the Step by Step School in Noida, a school with a robust special education department.

In middle school, surrounded by a network of support, things began to improve gradually. “I learnt that even when people are not overtly rude or nasty, they are not comfortable in the company of special needs children," says Achintya matter-of-factly. Things that seem innocuous to others can often trigger an emotional crisis for children with Asperger’s Syndrome. They miss social clues and have to learn to recognize and interpret emotions, both their own and those of others.

Outside school, the family had committed to social skills training, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and parent education and training with Parul Gupta and Sara Ann Schuchert at Potentials, a multidisciplinary centre that specializes in therapy for children with special needs. Amit Sen, a child psychiatrist, prescribed and monitored Achintya’s medication.

Listening to Gupta talk about social skills training, I realize that each one of us would benefit from a dose of it. Gupta is a child psychologist with a special interest in autism spectrum conditions. She talks of modules like perspective-taking training, social-clues training and the use of strategies like social autopsy and the emotions meter. Achintya learnt to identify and articulate what it is that made him angry and understand that there are always perspectives different from his own. He began to express, mould and accept himself better.

“Achintya’s greatest strength is his self-awareness. He has his struggles but he is deeply committed to overcoming them," says Gupta. “When he first came to me, he knew the theory of CBT by heart. Now we just had to help him apply it, taking into account his uniqueness and how Asperger’s Syndrome affected him."

“When I was 8-10 years old, I knew the dirtiest of abuses and used to utter them as a norm when I spoke," Achintya tells me. “After class X, I began to develop my personality. I began to observe the social environment and interact appropriately."

It is important for both Achintya and his mother to name names as they recount their journey. Carole Paul and Abha Kohli were the special educator and counsellor at the Step by Step School who welcomed Achintya back into mainstream school after he had been out for a year. Along with their team of SEN (Special Education Needs) support teachers, they helped Achintya set boundaries that helped him control his behaviour. For the first few years in middle school, one SEN teacher monitored and supported him constantly.

At the Step by Step School, I meet the team of SEN teachers who are thrilled to hear that their Achintya is being written about as a role model for others. Manzima Jain, Janajyoti Das, Chandrima Mazumdar and Srubabati Chatterjee are the teachers who never let their faith waiver in Achintya’s resilience and potential as a student. They have taken special classes after school hours, received phone calls from him when he needed to vent and pulled him towards the centre from the margins. They talk about Achintya’s extreme focus and clarity of goals.

“Give this article a very catchy title," says Mazumdar. “We want every parent and teacher to read this."

Mahesh Prasad, the principal of Step by Step School, began his speech at the formal farewell for Achintya’s batchmates earlier this year by naming two students whose progress had been exemplary. One of them was Achintya Majithia. The same Achintya who had been asked to leave junior school because they could not cope with him, passed out of senior school in a glow of glory.

“The only thing students remember is how much they were valued," Prasad tells me. When we respect children, they learn to respect others. We teach trust by trusting them."

“I think of Achintya’s lost years," says Monica, “and wish that no other family has to suffer due to ignorance and apathy." After Achintya finished school, she went back to full-time work and is training to become a life coach. She intends to enrol for a PhD soon.

“My mother introduced me to Nichiren Buddhism and it has really helped me to stay peaceful," Achintya shares. “But it is actually my younger sister who has the greatest influence on me. We fight a lot, but Wamika is also my best well-wisher. My father and I have a generation gap, but you should see how he calms me down when I get into a rage. Then I realize he is not outdated at all."

In its details, Achintya’s life as a schoolboy sounds like an unpredictable roller coaster. Gadgets were hurled in anger, fists smashed into walls, textbooks torn, and the threat of a meltdown seemed to always be on the horizon.

Zoom out and it is the story of an extraordinary transformation. This athletic, articulate college student sitting across me has been an obese adolescent with severe self-esteem issues. This boy who would get triggered if someone sat too close to him, now plays basketball in a team. Behind the walls he has built around him, is a person who has always craved to belong. To be accepted and recognized.

I am taking notes as he talks, but Achintya is tired now. Our interactions have been smooth and friendly, but for Achintya it has been a sensory overload and he needs a break. “That’s all, aunty, that’s my story," he says. “There is nothing more."

As we walk out towards the parking lot, he asks me if I have children. He asks how old they are. How will I go home now? By now, even I am feeling proud of him as I become the recipient of his empathy. I watch him walk away, this tall, lanky boy ready to face his future. He has worlds to conquer, one day at a time

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Published: 12 Aug 2016, 09:16 AM IST
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