Support for special needs children

From News Straits Time

22nd Oct 2013

Intervention at a young age is crucial for the development of children who have autism, Down’s Syndrome, dyslexia and other learning disabilities.

SEVEN-year-old Elvin Pang is like any other child his age. He plays with his relatives and friends, is friendly and outgoing and has days when he would rather stay at home than be in school. But Elvin was not always like this.

Five years ago, he was a socially withdrawn child, prone to temper tantrums, and had great difficulty communicating with his peers and his family.

His brother Eason found it difficult to bond with him and wouldn’t play with him. His mother, Tey Siew Zing, put it down to him just having a different personality, that he was “slow” and was “bad tempered”, until her sister, who lived in Johor Baru, highlighted the possibility that Elvin might be autistic.

“My sister had watched a movie on Singapore TV about autism, and she thought that Elvin’s characteristics matched that of a child with autism,” says Tey.

At two, Elvin was mostly quiet and still. When he wanted milk, he wasn’t able to ask Tey directly. Instead he would cry, and when no one knew what he wanted, Elvin would get frustrated and throw a tantrum.

“He would even bang his head on the floor,” says Tey. “When I took him to the playground in the evenings, he wouldn’t go and play on the swings or see saw, or even with the other kids. Instead he would just run aimlessly.”

Taking her sister’s advice, Tey took Elvin to a child psychologist at a private hospital in Kuala Lumpur. After observing him, the doctor diagnosed Elvin with mild autism.

Based on the diagnosis, Tey signed Elvin up for speech therapy and occupational therapy. She also put him into an Early Intervention Programme (EIP) for children with special needs.

The EIP centre Elvin attended was close to her home in Puchong, and he went there once a week. At the centre, Elvin had one-to-one sessions with special needs teachers along with group sessions and singing time, all of which was aimed at helping him come out of his shell. With this began his journey of integration with the rest of the world.

“I was really concerned about Elvin and I read up a lot about his condition on the Internet,” says Tey. In fact, the Internet proved to be a great source of information for her and she even purchased books and VCDs from abroad which she used to work with him on her own.

“Those days I was still working, and in the evenings, after I returned from work, I would spend a lot of time working with him using the books as a guide,” she says.

The sessions she had with him helped forge a bond between mother and son and over time, coupled with the EIP sessions, Elvin began emerging from his shell.

Tey then enrolled Elvin at a kindergarten near her home, Taska D Sayangku. She also sent him to another Montessori school from noon.

When Elvin was 5, he joined another kindergarten, D Loving Care, which had a low teacher to children ratio so Elvin would benefit from more one-to-one attention. “The reason I had him attending two kindergartens was because I didn’t want him sitting at home in isolation, I wanted him to be out there learning how to get along with other children and adults,” says Tey.

While taking him out had its challenges — she recalls him throwing tantrums in shopping malls — she persevered with it.

As soon as he turned 7, Elvin joined a mainstream Chinese school, Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan (Cina) Yak Chee, and is able to keep up with his classmates.

“While he still can be quiet in school, he’s slowly learning to be more proactive in class and is doing well in his studies,” says Tey. “As for his relationship with his brother, it has really improved and they are able to play together now.”

For parents like Tey, the fact that their special needs child can attend school and keep up with mainstream education is part of the process of empowering the child to lead a sustainable life in the long term.

“I just want him to go through school, and eventually find a job and have a family of his own one day,” says Tey.

The EIP centre and the kindergartens Elvin attended was part of an initiative under the umbrella of Malaysian Care, a non-governmental organisation heavily involved in working with organisations servicing children and adults with special needs.

The Inclusive Preschool Programme (IPP) was a pilot project of Malaysian Care with Taska D Sayangku which was implemented from November 2009 to December 2011.

The IPP programme was for all children between 2 and 4 years of age. During this period, Malaysian Care developed the IPP and trained the teachers of Taska D Sayangku in teaching children with special needs in a mainstream class.

The main objective of IPP was to prepare children with special needs for an inclusive kindergarten and for primary education. The NGO also trained the teachers of D Loving Care when Elvin and some other children with special needs moved to the kindergarten at the age of 5.

Malaysian Care’s director of Services for People With Special Needs, Pauline Wong, says it has helped set up 14 EIP centres throughout the country in Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, Ipoh, Batu Pahat and Sibu.

“Many teachers have no knowledge in teaching children with special needs and as a result, many kindergartens tend to turn away such children,” says Wong. “These children then have problems adjusting to a classroom environment when they join a mainstream school.”

In EIP centres, children with special needs are given individual education plans which cater to their educational requirements. Their needs are assessed and a plan is drawn up where the child is given access to both an EIP and an inclusive education kindergarten, with a focus on the areas the child needs more attention on.

Besides EIPs and inclusive education kindergartens, Malaysian Care also works with mainstream kindergartens by providing training for pre-school teachers on disabilities awareness and how to identify it in children, and to apply positive behaviour and teaching strategies to managing special needs children.

Among the disabilities their programme covers are autism, Down’s Syndrome, dyslexia, tunnel vision and dyspraxia.

“Early identification is critical so that we can figure out how to support their learning. Otherwise, it hinders their ability to learn,” says Wong.

Parents like Tey and NGOs like Malaysian Care have one hope in common, that the government will do more to support the needs of special children.

“Teachers in mainstream primary schools in the country should be trained on how to deal with children with special needs,” says Tey.

“The most important thing is for them to understand the behavioural effects of these children and also the different ways they learn.”

Wong feels that more support should be given to families of children with special needs and more collaboration is required between government and NGOs. She notes that the collaborations thus far have resulted in an improvement in the area of special needs over the past 20 years.

“There is more awareness these days,” she says. “Services for children with special needs are limited and expensive although there has been an increase of EIP in Malaysia.”

On its part, the government, through the Education National Key Results Area (NKRA) Special Education Needs lab facilitated by the Performance Management and Delivery Unit (Pemandu) in collaboration with the Ministry of Education has come up with findings and various initiatives regarding children with special needs.

Tengku Azian Shahriman, director of education NKRA, says a number of challenges were identified in regards to early intervention programmes for Special Education Needs.

“We have an acute shortage of specialists to properly diagnose conditions. This has resulted in delayed intervention in many cases. We know that the earlier the symptom is discovered, the faster the intervention can bring meaningful positive changes to the child and the family,” she says.

Azian notes that currently, there exists a shortage of intervention facilities.

“Most are run by NGOs and there is currently a lack of unified guidelines or standards in the quality of interventional services available,” she says.

This is why the Education NKRA’s next phase of transformation is focused on plugging the gaps. “In place are measures to implement a best practice standard that will be the hallmark of all centres, be it public or private,” says Azian.

Under the second phase of the Government Transformation Programme, these best practice standards for all centres running inclusion programmes include having a senior staff with a diploma in Special Needs Education, employees with hands-on experience and centres that employ family centred approaches which include the Individual Family Support Plan.

A government fee assistance programme is also available for NGOs and private centres which offer inclusive programmes for children with special needs.

Through the introduction of these best practices, Azian is confident that it will foster and create a better environment for special needs education and awareness in Malaysia.

Over the course of time, as these initiatives are rolled out, children like Elvin will have their needs catered to.