UKM Autism Learning Laboratory: Empowering children and care-givers towards meaningful lives


2nd Aug 2013

Autism is a neurological disorder that affects normal brain function, impacting the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Both children and adults with autism show difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interaction and leisure or play activities.

Many individuals suffering from Autism become intellectually disabled when not given the proper attention. It was with this in mind that UKM's Faculty of Education embarked on the establishment of the Autism Learning Laboratory within its premises dedicated towards giving effective education to children with Autism to enable them to reach their full potential, while serving as a platform for academicians and researchers to observe and study their behaviour and learning style.

Established in 2009 with funding from the University Research Grant, the laboratory has worked hard to design and develop an education module for children with Autism. The laboratory is operated by the University's Faculty of Education, and has 5 teachers, 2 teaching assistants and 17 students who have been diagnosed with Autism.

One of the laboratory's main objectives is to study and learn in depth about children with Autism, to enable academicians and researchers to develop effective teaching modules for children with the disorder. As no two autistic children are the same, developing an effective learning module to be implemented to all with the disorder is not easy. With this in mind, the laboratory uses Individual Education Planning (IEP) whereby the needs for each autistic child will be determined through a meeting with the parents.

Although the aims and objectives for each child vary with the implementation of IEP, all students receive some structure through a time table that is applied to all. This includes some physical activity in morning followed by some learning, lunch, rest and then depending on the day, an evening activity of arts and craft, swimming, cooking or gardening.

An IEP meeting is held between the teachers and the parents every 6 months to determine whether the methods that have been used have been effective. The laboratory also applies various learning and teaching techniques such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), Picture Exchange Communications (PECs), Discrete Trial Training (DTT), Structured Teaching, Visual Strategies and Behavior Modification, all of which have been proven to contribute greatly to the development of children with Autism.

The laboratory also enables students from the University who are currently pursuing studies in special education to undergo practical training. UKM students are required to attend the laboratory for 2 hours every week to fulfil their credit hours.

The laboratory also serves as an important referral centre for parents and care-givers who are dealing with children with Autism. Staff at the laboratory are able to give support and consultation services for parents and care-givers, so as to create a better environment for children with Autism to learn and play. Apart from that, the laboratory is also active in disseminating information and knowledge on Autism and effective learning techniques to members of the public.

Learning and Teaching about Autism

In Malaysia, children with Autism are often denied the right to education due to the lack of understanding by most parties. Stuck in their own world, they are unable to communicate, do not follow simple instructions, and often are hyper and hypoactive. Research findings by the laboratory have given these children a new lease on life, enabling them to learn and grow in an environment which understands them.

Armed with these findings and important information about Autism, the laboratory is dedicated towards disseminating them nationwide to touch more people whose lives have been affected by the disorder. Throughout 2011, staff at the laboratory conducted courses and workshops across the country to make this happen. The UKM research team has recently been entrusted to train supervisors from Community-Based Rehabilitation centres nationwide, paving the way towards better care-giving for children with Autism in these centres across Malaysia.

Parents who have children with learning disabilities, especially with Autism, are often at a loss on how to deal with their needs. Having children with Autism can be especially stressful when one is not equipped with the knowledge to handle their daily needs. The Autism Learning Laboratory at the University often receives calls and requests from desperate parents to help them in dealing with their children.

It was with this in mind that special workshops for parents of children with Autism were established by the laboratory. The workshop provides parents with information and knowledge on the special ways needed to deal with their children. During the workshops, parents are able to learn how to stimulate their children's development in order for them to reach their full potential. For these children, the most important thing is to reinforce what they have learnt in school at home as well. Keeping the parents well-informed also helps as they are the decision-makers when it comes to their child's welfare.

The workshops have received tremendous positive feedback and demand, prompting the laboratory to conduct the workshops on a monthly basis. Aside from the monthly workshops, the laboratory also gives advice and counselling via telephone and appointments.

The laboratory has also given many undergraduate and postgraduate students the opportunity to study the needs of children with Autism through a close and personal approach. For many students pursuing their studies in the field of special education, having the opportunity to work hands-on with children with Autism in such a setting is indeed very valuable. Through the laboratory, the students learn how learning aids are developed and gain a better understanding on the theories of special education that they have learnt in the coursework.

The research staff is also in the process of documenting the unique teaching and learning techniques that have been discovered through the lab, with the aim of publishing a complete manual and resource handbook for teachers, parents and care-givers in the field of special education to better understand and help children with Autism.

Creating a better future

The laboratory's research team plans to open a Centre of Excellence on Disabilities Research and Practice in the future to address the many needs and issues surrounding children and individuals with learning or physical disabilities. Among the main objectives of the centre will be to set up an effective and comprehensive intervention programme that will ensure children with special needs receive the necessary care and attention. The centre also aims to train and empower parents, teachers and care-givers to raise children with special needs more effectively and efficiently.

The centre will also develop teaching and learning modules for children with special needs, while building a strong support system for these children to eventually pursue their tertiary studies, or to live independently. The centre's ultimate focus will be towards giving people with learning and physical disabilities as well as their family members more meaningful and fulfilling lives for the long term.