The team of Christ University and Binghamton University
The team of Christ University and Binghamton University.


Maideninternational conferencein Bengaluru kick-started the collaborative partnership for the creation and promotion of evidence-based practices through research & knowledge sharing

Bengaluru : There’s dearth of reliable data on the number of people with disabilities in India. The 2011 census claims that there are26.8 million people (about 2.21% of the country’s total population), while the World Bank suggests that the number is somewhere between 40 and 80 million. Among these, cases of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), in particular, have been seeing an alarming rise over the last decade. About 1 in 100 children in India under age 10 is reported to have ASD, a neurological and developmental disorder that begins in early childhood and lasts for life.

In order to bridge the yawning gap in terms of research, treatment and education in the field, Stepping Stones Center, Binghamton University, and Christ University, Bengaluru, have entered into a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) today to create a collaborative partnership dedicated to the creation and promotion of evidence-based practices through research, knowledge sharing, courses, workshops, and conferences.

Christ University, Bengaluru, hosted the first annual international conference on ‘Interdisciplinary Research, Treatment, and Education of Children with Developmental Disabilities’ today to mark the beginning of this global collaboration. The day-long conference provided evidence-based and comprehensive information on developing effective educational programming and inclusive practices for children with disabilities.

Inaugurating the conference, Svetlana Iyer, Co-Founder, Stepping Stones Center, said, “In 2011, when my husband Balakrishnan (Balki) Iyer and I relocated to India from the US with our four-year-old daughter, we came across many families – mostly those who had lived abroad – who struggled to find quality medical and educational services for their children with disabilities. As a special educator and behavior analyst, I was inclined to investigate the state of special education and consulted for various charitable organisations and parents, mainly the ones who were precluded from attending regular schools. However, I realised that starting an organisation to bring change is much easier than trying to change the existing system. And that’s how Stepping Stones Center was born. Today, as we enter into the MoA with Binghamton University and Christ University, Bengaluru, we are excited to embark on this new journey of collaboration and learning that’ll help fill the gap in the lives of children with disabilities.”

The convention hosted a wide-range of insightful workshops – from early identification and intervention methods in ASD and behaviour disorders and their treatment to the effectiveness of play therapy and the emerging role of inter-professional education and collaboration. Sessions on pediatric feeding disorders, the use of differentiated instruction, and the assessment and management of anxiety in children with ASD saw animated exchange of ideas and discussions on the latest research in the field.

Commenting on the momentous occasion,Dr Jennifer Gillis, Associate Professor of Psychology, Binghamton Universitysaid,“There’s an urgent need for more awareness and pro-active measures to deal with ASD and other developmental disorders that affect children. Not many people realise that a condition like ASD not only impairs one’s ability to learn and use language, but also to connect and socialise with others, as well as perform day-to-day activities independently. With today’s MoA, we hope to build a stronger community of professionals in India, who are well-equipped to deal with this mammoth challenge. The conference is a beautiful amalgamation of so many diverse ideas, thoughts and experiences. We are honoured and delighted to be a part of this transformative journey.”

The event saw enthusiastic participation from psychologists, counsellors, pediatricians, physicians, speech-language pathologists, general and special education professionals, early-intervention staff, occupational therapists, behaviour analysts, ABA professionals, school principals, school administrators as well as parents of children with disabilities. It served as an interactive platform for knowledge sharing and gaining better insights into the latest developments and best practices in the ever-evolving field.

Addressing the engrossed audience, Dr Tony Sam George, Dean – Humanities and Social Sciences, Christ Universitysaid, “To fight the autism epidemic in India, we need collaborative initiatives that will help us tap into the extensive research and learnings that are available across the globe. We are pleased to be a part of one such significant initiative today, with Stepping Stones Center and Binghamton University. The aim is to help these children live a full life and explore all the available opportunities – whether it’s access to quality education or the best treatment modalities.”

The speakers for the day included an impressive lineup of domain experts, such as Dr. Harvey G Stenger, President, State University of New York at Binghamton; Dr. Laura Bronstein, Dean and Professor, Executive Director, Institute for Justice and Well-Being, Binghamton University; Svetlana Iyer, Director, Stepping Stones Center ; Dr. Geetika Agarwal, Behavior analyst and licensed psychologist in Washington USA; Dr. Elizabeth Anderson, Associate Professor, Co-director, Institute for Justice and Well-Being, Department of Teaching, Learning and Educational Leadership, Binghamton University; Dr. Meghna Singhal, Research Fellow, Parenting and Family Support Centre, University of Queensland, Australia, and Consultant, Cult Fit; Dr. Chitra Sankar, Consultant, Developmental Pediatrics; Dr Siddharth Dutt, Assistant Professor and Clinical Psychologist, Christ(Deemed to be) University ; Unnati G. Hunjan, Assistant Professor, Dept of Psychology, Christ(Deemed to be) University ; and Dr. Jennifer Gillis, Associate Professor of Psychology, Associate Director of the Institute for Child Development, Director Binghamton Regional Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders, Binghamton University; Dr. Youjung Lee, Associate Professor in the Department of Social Work at Binghamton University and co-director of the Institute for Justice and Well-Being; NP Shilpa, School-Clinical Coordinator at Stepping Stones Centre.

The most popular session of the conference, arguably, was the Community Drumjam workshop by Vasundhara Das. The well-known singer, songwriter, composer, actress, speaker, and Co-Founder of Community Drumjam Foundation introducedthe enthusiastic participants to the many joys of interactive group drumming and in-the-moment music making.

Bringing the conference to a close, Balakrishnan (Balki) Iyer Co-Founder, Stepping Stones Center, remarked, “Our job is just beginning…the way to have real impact is with right content, right technology, and right financial structure to train and empower practitioners/parents around the country and change lives of 13+ million families of children with autism. Only then we can rest, but it all starts with the good intent and partners who are aligned with our vision.”

The post-conference fundraising dinner, sponsored by Prestige Constructions, with performance by renowned South Indian playback singer Vandana Srinivasan, aims to bring together notable panelists from the fields of business, education, and disability advocacy for a thought-provoking and action-building discussion on ‘The Role of Business in Changing the World of Autism in India’.

Started in 2013, Stepping Stones Center (SSC), Bengaluru, aims to bring awareness, training, and evidence-based interventions to families of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and/or other neurological disorders. It has been a pioneer in providing intensive Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) services, integrated with speech and occupational therapies, along with a transition programme to their collaborating inclusive general education schools, serving 100+ children annually.

One of the biggest hurdles for SSC was to find an inclusive setting where these children feel a sense of belonging. This led to a Montessori School called Compass, where a healthy ratio between children with ASD and typically developing children was maintained. Soon, SSC expanded to other schools, such as Sandeepani Academy in Sarjapur, where they now have a well-established setup to address the needs of children with disabilities in resource and regular classroom setting.

Another challenge was to find well-trained staff. Apart from mothers who wanted to support their children, there was little interest in special education as a career. It didn’t help that no universities in India offer an ABA training programme! So, SSC created a robust programme, whereby more than 300 individuals have been trained till date.Over the years, SSC and the Institute of Child Development at Binghamton University have collaborated on research and professional development initiatives, with staff and student exchange programmes.

Svetlana Iyer, the Co-founder, is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and a certified special education teacher in New York and Connecticut. She holds a Master’s degree in Elementary and Special Education from Binghamton University (SUNY). Svetlana has worked in the field of special education since 2003.

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