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A walk in the park: Building a community that cares

Like all teenagers, Abhimanyu Srinivas loves the outdoors, especially in the beautiful Delhi winter. He enjoys walking down Lodhi Garden's tree-lined and flower-specked trails, looking up at a pandemonium of parrots, joining them in song, playing football, and then enjoying a tasty snack.

Family outings like this gave dad Madhusudan Srinivas the idea of doing this along with a gang of other kids with autism. For children with autism also have sensory needs that the environment can take care of. "Like in a park there's a lot of visual things happening, things for the hands to do', says Manish Samnani, Abhimanyu's occupational therapist.

Further, hanging out in gang would help socialise the kids, a key challenge with children on the spectrum. So along with Samnani, Srinivas began a kind of weekend playdate.

For starters, he reached out to all the kids Abhimanyu had grown up with. Initially, there wasn't much of a response, chiefly due to logistical issues. `But some children came, and we got something going', says Srinivas.

Besides having some fun, we looked forward to talking to other parents, exchanging notes, lightening our souls (very therapeutic, that) and then heading back home. - Madhusudan Srinivas, Journalist

Around that time, about a decade back, Bibhu Mishra, a journalist, took a transfer to Delhi from Bhubaneshwar, looking for better facilities and opportunities for his son Vivan, who has autism.

"For both parents and the children, Madhu's concept was a novelty," says Mishra. "Every weekend, we used to pack lots of snacks and eagerly set out for our get-together".

Sometimes, especially in the rains, instead of going to the park they would all go for a nice, long joyride on the Delhi Metro.

By including children with diverse needs, the initiative attempts to sensitise the community as well.

"I feel there's a huge need to sensitise so-called normal kids and adults. We don't need to segregate our kids. Children are very accepting, and we need to sensitise them regularly', feels Sujata Suri, a health coach who also works with children with disabilities.

Besides meeting during these play dates, members of this community now drop in on each other's homes, or simply call up and chat. For both the children and their families, this sense of a larger community that cares has been of immense emotional value and support.

"The very act of going together and coming back leads to bonding and chemistry", says Samnani.

The plan now is to scale this concept to another level by building out the community in different parts of the national capital.

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