Mangalore: Pratibha Karanth: Godmother to Autistic Kids

Feb 29, 2008

At the dawn of February 2008, Mangalore played host to at the three-day 40th (Ruby) conference of the Indian Speech and Hearing Association at the TMA Pai International Conference Centre. Hosted by Dakshina Kannada Speech and Hearing Association, the continuing education programme of the conference covered over 200 scientific paper presentations based on field research for the 1200 delegates. It is notable that in India autism has as high a prevalence as the world average and is manifested in communication problems from childhood with behavioural issues. For the uninitiated, autism is a pervasive developmental disorder of children, charecterised by impaired communications, excessive rigidity and emotional detachment. Once swept under the carpet because of social stigma associated with it, it is now being increasingly recognized, diagnosed and tackled through specialized treatment and care-givers.

The privilege of making the opening research presentation and chairing the concluding session at the Ruby conference went to Dr. Pratibha Karanth. With Tulunadu roots, and now based in Bangalore, she is in the forefront of offering rehabilitation centres for autistic kids in India as Founder-Director of the Bangalore-headquartered The Com-DEALL Trust (Com is short for communication and DEALL acronym for Developmental Eclectic Approach to Language Learning). Com-DEALL is today in the thick of working for autistic children with teams of speech pathologists, occupational therapists, psychologists and educators. It has four centres in Bangalore with 80 children under its care and one each in Mumbai and Mangalore. It has over a dozen requests to open its centres in other cities, including abroad. Its pivotal status in the nascent (for India) area is thanks to the dedication and drive of Prathibha.
Born on March 22, 1948, Prathibha is the fourth among three sons and two daughters of Kaup Sarvotham and Kausalia Shetty. Her father had a flourishing legal practice in Madras and was also a trade union leader, specially of hotel workers. He shifted to Mangalore in 1956 and continued his practice. This inheritor of Kodialguthu-West (located half km west of M.G. Road and close to the Convention Centre) through the Aliya Santana route, moved into the main Guthu House in 1962. Incidentally, it was at the centre of a vast sleepy village then, with paddy fields spread all over as far as the eye could reach – and owned by the Guthu, including the land on which the Convention Centre now stands.

Pratibha and her elder sister, Jyothi (married to Ashok Alva and now living in the main Guthu House) often had to walk to St. Agnes College from where they graduated. After securing her degree in psychology, Pratibha had set her heart at becoming a radio announcer or psychologist. But, Prof. Hussain from Mysore, who was her external viva examiner, got her interested in a new course then being started, with seven seats, at the All India Institute of Speech and Hearing in Mysore. Armed with post-graduate degree from the Institute, Pratibha joined National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, Bangalore.
Pratibha went back to the Mysore, on sabbatical study leave, to the Central Institute of Indian Languages, to do her Ph.D in audiology and speech pathology. In 1983 she joined the faculty of All India Institute of Speech and Hearing from which she took voluntary retirement from her post as Professor and Head of the Department of Speech Pathology. Moving to Bangalore, she continued her academic life as visiting professor at S. R. Chandrashekar Institute of Speech and Hearing in Bangalore and M. V. Shetty College of Speech and Hearing in Mangalore – involving post-graduate studies and research.
Coming back to Com-DEALL, Pratibha believes that autistic children should be helped to function as part of the society by offering them rehabilitation facilities in the vicinity of their home. Her job satisfaction is in being able to make a difference in the target child’s life. She specially recalls a gifted child, Tito, a Bengali, who was helped by her from the age of four years, first in Mysore and then in Bangalore, where Tito and his mother followed her. Tito has written an inspirational, moving autobiography and has made waves on BBC. Now in USA, Tito continues to make waves through his writings and has emerged as a role model to autistic children.

When Bratibha’s work with Tito got to be known, several parents of children with autism sought her services for their children. Given the near-total lack of professional help available in the country for children with communication disorders, particularly those with autism, Pratibha embarked on this new phase of her career, setting up an indigenous, affordable, early intervention programme in Bangalore in November 2000. The rest is history in this specialized field.
A Bunt, Pratibha is married to Dr. Ullas Karanth, a Brahmin and son of the legendary Dr. Kota Shivaram Karanth. Interestingly, Shivaram had married a Bunt bride. Ullas, an engineering graduate from Suratkal (now NIET), after working for a German company in Bangalore, changed course to become a front-ranking animal conservationist, with special focus on tigers. Both husband and wife are professional nomads, traveling extensively both in India and abroad – attending conventions and presenting papers. Pratibha has traveled to South America, North America and Europe and has been recipient of professional awards. She has held Fullbright professorship at University of Georgia at Athena and also been involved in research collaboration and visiting professorships at other universities such as City University of New York Graduate Centre.
The couple has one daughter, Krithi, who is doing Ph. D at Duke University, USA. Speaking of Shivaram Karanth, Prathibha says: “Getting to know and interacting with him was a great experience”.         
John B. Monteiro, author and journalist, is Editor of website (Interactive Cerebral Challenger)      

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