Autism Interview #139 Part 1: Rakshita Shekhar on Misdiagnosis and Finding Her Way

Rakshita Shekhar is a self-diagnosed teacher of Autistic students in India. She holds a master’s degree in intellectual and developmental disabilities from University of Kent, UK, and a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Bangalore, India. She has over 10 years of experience facilitating learning for children and adults, across socio-economic categories and support needs, and currently teaches autistic students with a focus on developing their self and social identity. She has presented research on inclusive education in national and international forums. This is the first part of her two-part interview on self-diagnosis. This week she shared her professional background and her journey to figuring out her real passions despite continued failure to obtain an autism diagnosis from medical professionals.

You obtained your Bachelor’s degree in India and your Master’s degree in the U.K. Can you tell me a little bit about your geographical and educational background? For example, what has prompted the international travel? What do you enjoy most about being a special education teacher?

So I live in Hyderabad, India. I don’t have a singular cultural identity because I simultaneously have been influenced (or not) by multiple Indian cultures. I always wanted to study psychology, sociology and literature because I thought my questions about my identity and how people/society functioned could be answered by an education in liberal arts.

However, I got good grades in math and science in my 10th school graduating exams (our version of the GCSE). So I was forced to study science in my pre-university level (A levels) and pursue an engineering degree later, by my parents. Well, I don’t blame them. They grew up struggling to make a living, and education was only a means to a job. The software industry was booming when I was in the 10th, and a job in a software firm meant a comfortable life for me – the life they hadn’t seen. The job market is still not very friendly to the liberal arts in India. Also, they believed I was too young to understand these things and had Utopian ideas in my head.

But I was very restless. I noticed that there were some boys in my class who were passionate about what they were studying. They knew more than the teachers could teach them. I often thought to myself that there must be something even I am passionate about. I didn’t have answers. I knew it would be a waste of time to repeat three more years studying sociology, psychology, literature.

I joined a software firm out of peer pressure. I had to look successful. And I had no other ideas for how I’d do that. It turned out well (it has been the only place where I was respected for my difference. Within a year, I was offered a promotion to a position for which people with 5-6 years compete for. I am naturally good at logic, deep analysis, pattern recognition, details orientation, innovation, and delivering quality. The only criteria were that I must do a certification in a then hot technology. I didn’t want to waste more time studying something I didn’t like. So my mentor pushed me to reflect and figure out what I really wanted to do with my life.

I got posted to another department where I managed 300 people and big ticket projects worth millions of rupees. But I wasn’t satisfied.

Since my high school, I had been a volunteer teacher. So when I asked my mother one day what really lit me up, she said teaching. I immediately resigned to pursue a career in teaching.

I had attended many education courses from a training company that eventually offered me a job (knowing I liked teaching and training). I assumed the job was about teaching and training. Their courses were about personality development in adults mainly but they also had one program for children. The job had me do sales of their adult programs. The kids program that I thought I would lead was an illusion. I wasn’t good at sales, but I was told this was the first step to becoming a teacher. And I believed them. I go by words and can’t read implied meanings. So I got cheated. They harassed me to no end. I was traumatised. But after I left this company, I still insisted to my family that I wanted to teach children.

But my mother, who had been a teacher for some years, didn’t like the idea because schools here are devoid of intellect, and she knew I wouldn’t fit in. My mother was very unhappy because she knew schools would exploit me and ostracise me. Schools here are toxic places I think now. But I insisted that schools are safer after I got cheated, exploited and harassed by the international company.

After this, I got my teacher’s qualifications and joined a school.

I LOVED my job. I was very good at it. I was a favourite among children and parents. My class performance was very high compared to others’. I consistently got high scores in my appraisals. I could spend hours and hours reading about child psychology and pedagogy, and I could forget sleep, hunger, everything while planning for my classes. I had found my place (I thought).

But my mother was right. I never fit in. I couldn’t be another brick in the wall, and my being this way encouraged my students also not to be. So I was an integral threat to the schools I worked in. Since 2013, I have worked in four schools. I have been fired from three and in the fourth one, I had to leave because I couldn’t pretend to be like everybody else. I developed high anxiety and depression, trying to mask.

So when I started out in a school, I told you I was very good at my job. But I noticed that there were some kids who weren’t responding to my ways the way others were responding. Children with special needs don’t get admission into mainstream schools here, generally. By chance if they do, their mental health takes a toll because of unmet needs. When I first started teaching, I noticed that most children responded very well to my ways. But there were a few who didn’t. If you asked them if they liked me and my ways, they would say ‘yes.’ Their parents would say their child was finally happy or that they loved me. But these children were not meeting learning objectives. In essence, where before, these children were not happy even on the surface, now they were happy on the surface. Their parents didn’t expect anything else from me. But I couldn’t digest the truth. They were not learning in my class.

So I started reading. I swear my teacher’s course didn’t have anything about these kids. The more I understood them, the more I got them learning.

One of the senior special educators at school who had worked for many years in the USA noticed my work and encouraged me. So I used to, apart from taking my classes, assist her with special needs children. I took on that load because I loved the rush I got when these children learnt. She encouraged me to do my masters in special needs from abroad. Indian courses were way cheaper, but didn’t have the rigor that could match my passion. So I went to the UK.

I did it by distance from India, traveling every few months for compulsory attendance and exams. It was cheaper. I could also work and pay my bills.

I am not a proponent of special education. At least here in India, only children with visibly mild disabilities like hearing impairments but with cochlear implants, speaking with stutters, typically speaking but compliant Autistic children who don’t have learning disabilities – are given admissions. The rest are thrown to the wolves. Some schools, which boast of being inclusive, don’t take any accountability for the progress of the child, putting all the blame on the child’s disability. This is the special education system I am working with. I hate it. But I am helpless and alone.

What I really want is authenticity. In approaching the child’s learning. Where the child and I work in tandem. Where the general education teacher and I work in tandem. To make general education available, but also where the environment makes them happy, passionate and able to access a high quality life. What I love most when working with disabled children is the scope I have to design quirky lessons, the high I get in our little world where everything seems perfect. I am very good at reducing/eliminating challenging behaviours. I do it by adapting the environment to remove triggers and loving them endlessly. It speaks to my brain – which is good at picking up details and analysing the root cause. So in a sense, teaching them is more suited to my brain type and personal sensibilities.

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