Beacon Hill guides autistic children into mainstream

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 April, 2012, 12:00am


All pupils have their needs, so children with 'special' needs should not be seen as fundamentally different, according to primary school educators who put autistic children in mainstream classes as much as possible.

'Education is about giving every child the help they need to develop, whether that need is 'special' or not,' John Brewster, principal of Beacon Hill School, said in an interview in the lead-up to the fifth annual World Autism Awareness Day, yesterday.

For the past seven years, Beacon Hill, a primary school in the English Schools Foundation (ESF) system, has been using an 'inclusive model' - putting children with special needs into mainstream classrooms.

The school currently has 21 special-needs children, all of whom take most of their classes with mainstream classmates. The are separated only for relatively short periods for special classes such as training in speech and social skills.

Beacon Hill's head of special-education needs, Belinda McLaughlin, said: 'It does mean extra effort [for teachers], but the benefits [of the inclusion model] far outweigh the added workload. Once the teachers see the results, they all become committed to the project.'

Francis Yu Sau-ying, of Autism Hong Kong, said that while the inclusion concept was 'very popular', it depended on a pupil's level of autism.

'Inclusion is great for children with lower to middle levels of autism, but it may not be good for children with moderate to serious autism,' he said.

Some autistic children dislike outside stimulants like noise, and have difficulty adjusting to sudden changes in environment or schedules, which can be problematic. But, if autistic pupils were able to play with other children, it would be good for their development, Yu said.

Many schools in Hong Kong could not follow Beacon Hill School's example due to a lack of financial resources and specialist support, said Yu, adding that the government lacks an understanding of autism.

There are no concrete numbers of how many children in Hong Kong have the condition, making it hard to plan and allocate funding.

Tim Conroy-Stocker, an educational psychologist with the ESF Therapy Centre, provides help to children with special needs.

'There are more children being diagnosed as autistic. In fact, I prefer talking about a child's functional strengths and difficulties - so it's a spectrum, not a diagnosis,' he said.

The ultimate aim is to provide every child with the help they need. 'It's a change of attitude and perspective.'