Thursday, August 6

Autism – moving from awareness to acceptance


Autistic children play with educational toys.

AUTISTICS or people with special needs are not unusual – they live among us and should be accepted as part of our society, according to Kuching Autistic Association (KAA) president Datuk Dr Yao Sik Chi.

The ability to recognise the symptoms has enabled more parents to seek early diagnosis and intervention to give their autistic children a better chance of living independently.

With the availability of training facilities and therapy, these children can acquire communication and social skills to interact with others and gain a better understanding of what they see, hear, and read.

Dr Yao said parents were seeking special education or inclusive education whereby their autistic children would study together with other children, adding, “The parents are hoping their children will have the cognitive potential to achieve various levels of the academic qualifications.”

Ten minutes in the gym is the rule at the centre.

He noted that parents were also seeking vocational training for their autistic children to help them earn a living and give them a sense of self-worth.

“The community is more supportive of organisations that provide financial assistance, voluntary service, training, and therapy for autistics.”

Feilina SY Muhammad Feisol

He noted that when autistic children displayed temper-tantrum behaviour in public places such as malls or eating places, the general public is now more tolerant and empathetic towards the parents instead of blaming them for not disciplining their children.

Dr Yao, a former Sarawak Health Department director, revealed why autism is close to his heart – he has a 38-year-old autistic son.

Dr Yao said he got involved with the Kuching Autistic Association partly because of his medical background but more so because both he and his wife wanted to help other parents.

He felt that more special education teachers should be trained and more schools should start special education classes.

“In every special education class, there should be at least one teaching aide, besides the class teacher. Inclusive education should also be encouraged wherever possible so that autistic children can develop better socialising skills and normal children can be more empathetic towards them.

“I feel more kindergarten teachers should be trained to handle and teach preschool children with autism. More kindergartens should also accept autistic children.”

Dr Yao said as the government played an important role in the welfare of the community, it should give financial support to organisations providing one-to-one training to preschool autistic children and those of primary school age.

“Occupational and speech therapists should be made available in government outpatient facilities at the district level,” he added.

An autistic child having fun with a gym ball.

Early intervention for autistic children does not stop at the therapy or intervention centre but should continue when they reach secondary school.

“Right now, an adult autistic child does not have a proper special school to go to. Hence, the urgency to open a vocational school where autistics can be taught essential life skills,” Dr Yao suggested.


Autism symptoms

To recognise autism, the symptoms to look for are persistent difficulties in the social use of verbal and non-verbal communication; none to delayed speech; abnormal social approach and back and forth conversation; reduced sharing of interests; poor eye contact and body language; lack of facial expressions; and difficulties in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships.

Other characteristics are restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities; repetitive motor movements; repetitive speech; rigidity such as inflexibility to changes in routine; highly restricted and fixated interests abnormal in intensity; and extremely sensitive or insensitive to certain sensory inputs.

The KAA runs a vocational school where autistic children are taught crafts or art and survival skills.

A sensory room for autistic children.

During a tour of the vocational training centre-cum-group home at Taman Desa Wira, Kuching, thesundaypost was brought by the programme coordinator Cheryl Chong to see an autistic student doing beadwork with a supervisor.

Chong said the handicrafts would be sold at charity sales or made to order and for each sale, the student would get a commission.

“Vocational training is a must for autistics after age 12. After Form 3, they should be given a chance to enrol in vocational schools. Their special talents should be discovered early and purposefully developed.

“These talents may be in music, art, handicrafts, computing and maths. Most autistics need to work in areas where they don’t have to interact with a lot of people or in shelter workshops, doing packaging, bakery, and handicrafts.

“Those who have acquired adequate socialising and communicative skills can work in public places such as cafes and supermarkets under supervisors,” Chong said.

The basic things autistic children learn.

Done with awareness

At the recent forum on the Autistic Child held in Kuching, National Autism Society of Malaysia (Nasom) president Feilina SY Muhammad Feisol said, “I think we have reached a point, especially in the urban areas, where we are done with awareness and now it’s time to be accepting. Gratifyingly, the government has accepted and it has a zero-reject policy.

“What we need to realise is every child has the right to education and every special child has the right to special educational support – that’s what we are trying to so hard to provide.

“But the most important people are the parents. They have to accept and to expose the children by bringing them out, then the community can accept.”

She pointed out that presently, the community does not know how to accept autistics because many parents were keeping their children at home.

“Even now, parents don’t bring their autistic children out because of the stigmatisation. You know sometimes you have a family kenduri and you don’t allow your autistic children to go. Why? It’s your family kenduri and you should bring the children out, then the family can become part of the community of support.”

She said very often when there was a family function during Chinese New Year, Hari Raya, Gawai or Christmas, autistic children were kept at home.

“You know why? Parents say the autistic children will disturb things belonging to other people or misbehave. But first, you have to bring them out to your family function. If your community accepts them, then other communities will accept too. That’s acceptance,” she said.

Dr Yao and his son Barny, with the latter’s artwork displayed on the doors of a mall.

Left behind

She pointed out that urban societies like Kuching, Kuala Lumpur, and Penang might understand what autism is but the rural areas were left behind because there is a lack of support and no one was trained to handle autistic children.

“It’s most important to train the front liners – Kemas teachers, nurses in the clinic and hospitals – and if there is something not quite right for the child, the mother has to ask if her child can be given a screening to get the diagnosis.

“The faster you learn the child has the condition – autistic or Down Syndrome – the faster he or she can go for early intervention. The faster the intervention, the better the chances for the child.”

According to Feilina, early intervention with parental guidance is very important for autistic children because, through parents, they learn basic skills.

“They learn how to change their clothes, they are toilet-trained, they know how to eat using spoon and fork, and can even hold a glass.

“A lot of times because the autistic child is not toilet-trained, he or he is still wearing diapers. Can you imagine a seven-year-old still wearing diapers? So parents are the key people in their children’s lives,” she stressed.

On facilities, she said so far there is only one mall in Malaysia which is autism-friendly – Sunway Putra Mall.

“At least some acknowledgement for autistic children. The lights are dim, no music, and there is even a calming room. If the autistic child gets aggressive, there is a place that can calm him or her down called a Calming Room.”

Feilina said she is in discussions with Malaysian Airports Holdings Berhad on plans to make KLIA1 and KLIA2 the first autism-friendly airports in Asia, adding, “We hope it will become reality by the end of the year.”


More facilities wanted

On other facilities for autistics, she stressed Nasom “definitely wants more”.

“Nasom, incepted 32 years ago, is pushing hard for Tvet (Technical and Vocational Education and Training). In West Malaysia, we’re working with Ministry of Youth and Sports.

“They have the Institut Kemahiran Belia Negara (IKBN) or National Youth Skills Institute under the ministry. They have opened two IKBN for 40 places (20 for Data Entry for Standard Chartered, Nasom, and IKBN) and another 20 for Hospitality where the autistic students learn to set the table and do housekeeping.

“Forty places aren’t enough because, at one time, we have 400 autistic students applying. It’s amazing because these are the children who stay at home and have nowhere to go. I think the government should set up a big vocational centre to train these special people,” she said.