When Nina Jain’s son, Niam, was diagnosed with autism at the age of two, she didn’t know what to do. Jain took to the Internet, and as she was doing research to understand how to help her son, she found an unregulated and confusing landscape.

“There were a lot of materials out there,” said Jain, but the people behind the materials weren’t qualified and the lessons were not evidence-based. “It was very easy to spend money and not get results.”

The costs added up. Therapy could run up to 30 or 40 dollars an hour, and Jain said that some kids may need 40 hours a week. The CDC says intensive behavioral interventions for children with autism can cost $40,000 to $60,000 per child per year.

“It’s why I do what I do,” said Jain, who hopes her materials, free of cost, can especially help households who are experiencing financial insecurity. “I try to help families.”

When Jain couldn’t find resources for Niam, she started making her own flashcards, often staying up late into the night creating materials to help him understand what he was struggling with at the time. If he had an issue at school or didn’t understand a social skill she would create a story to teach it to him.

“All these things we take for granted, we teach kids with autism,” said Jain.

Niam, now seventeen, is still the inspiration for Jain’s work. Jain founded Able2Learn Inc., a self-funded social enterprise, in 2014. Through Able2Learn, Jain creates and shares educational materials and curriculum to support families who have children with autism. Her lessons include social skill story books, recipes, and puberty curriculum in addition to math, reading and other subject specific material. Teachers, parents, and therapists all around the world use Jain’s materials, to work with kids which are available in three levels. Able2Learn focuses on helping students build functional skills, and Jain says that their resources are for families looking for early interventions in a free and affordable way.

“Whatever he [Niam] is going through or whatever he requires is what I start working on,” said Jain. She has found that many other people also need those resources. Her older son, Rohan Jain, is a co-owner of the enterprise, and he helps with concept formation, technology and proofreading. Jain says that this is their family’s way of giving back.

Niam and brother Rohan with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Photo courtesy of Nina Jain)

Jain pursued training in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to help inform what she creates for Able2Learn. She also took courses in music therapy and an evidence-based, adaptive reading program, Fast ForWord.

She says that her materials allow students who have autism to be integrated into the classroom. For example, if a teacher is in the midst of a science lesson, a child who may have trouble following along can use her materials to do an alternate assignment. And because the pages aren’t numbered, those downloading her lessons can mix and combine to suit their individual student’s needs.

Jain offers lessons at three levels to accommodate as many types of learners as possible. “Every single child is uniquely different,” she said. For kids who can’t write yet, she has books with velcro images that can be attached. The next level is for kids who have begun to print, and so the worksheets help them practice tracing. And the third level could be similar to what would be in a workbook at school, but adapted to the student’s needs.

This curriculum is intended to supplement other interventions families may be seeking out. It is also a way to start early intervention while families are waiting for diagnosis.

“There are lots of small resources parents can use to pair with the therapy [their kids] are already getting,” said Jain.

Some of Jain’s most popular lessons have been on puberty and sexual health education. She remembers one man who wrote to her and said “Thank you for making it easy to teach my daughter about her period.”

Jain also has social stories to help kids understand how their body is changing and what that might mean for different urges they have, including masturbation.

This makes it easier for parents to guide their children through those conversations, which can be difficult and confusing.

Other resources that are popular include her visual recipes which help students learn how to be independent and cook in the kitchen and coping strategies related to mental health or bullying.

The mental health resources were inspired by a recent incident that Jain witnessed her son go through — he was bullied in a men’s changing room, which caused an anxiety attack. She realized a need for material on what do when one might be feeling anxious or frustrated. She said that there have been a growing number of downloads on that particular resource.

“Our kids are the most vulnerable for bullying and depression,” said Jain. “And when you’re in a world you don’t understand, you’ll have anxiety.”

Jain also hopes that this curriculum will help parents who might be experiencing burn out. She said that the ready-to-use resources save parents, especially mothers, time and money and gives families a change to invest that time in each other.

“If I can find a way to save the family resources and put money into themselves,” said Jain, acknowledging that appropriate care for a child with autism can be expensive. “And depression amongst mothers is a very real issue.”

She also finds that families all around the world use her resources, notably in countries where there is less awareness and more stigma around autism.

Niam’s paintings can go for thousands of dollars (Photo courtesy of Nina Jain)

“Having this website allows families to work with their child in the privacy of their home,” said Jain, though she doesn’t hide Niam, who is charting a career path as an artist. Jain says that his paintings can go for thousands of dollars.

“It is our prejudgment we have to get rid of to determine what is a fulfilling life and what reaching your full potential means,” said Jain. She emphasizes that Niam’s difficulty with motor skills or the fact that he is nonverbal hasn’t stopped him from having a career. “He’s happy and living a fulfilling life, and that is what is important.”


SOURCE: The Indian Scene, July 2020 by Harsha Nahata