Golden time for special needs children

It's tough for parents of children with special needs to find the right support before kindergarten, writes Elaine Yau

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 9:51am

As Justin Huen Ho-yan's parents look on, teacher Flora Chan encourages the baby to stretch his hand out and reach for the colourful toys near him. This action helps exercise Justin's arm muscles, which are weak because the 16-month-old boy has Down's syndrome.

Justin has been getting muscle reinforcement training at the Hong Kong Down Syndrome Association in Wong Tai Sin since June. He is among the few toddlers with special needs who are lucky enough to receive special training before they start kindergarten.

The association's director, Anna Lee Mei-yin, says applying for a place at the government-run early education training centre for special needs children is like the interminable wait for a public housing flat.

"In most cases, children get a place when they reach 20 months. But in districts like Yau Tsim Mong, where demand heavily outweighs supply, a child will not get a place until he is three years old.

"For special needs children, the time right after their birth, when they undergo growth spurts, is a critical period where reinforcement must be given. Otherwise, it will be much harder for them to catch up as they grow older," says Lee.

The definition of "special needs" covers a range of developmental and health conditions. Down's syndrome is just one example. Others include autism, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, and visual and speech disorders.

Training services for preschoolers with special needs are provided by the Social Welfare Department. The aim is to "enhance the children's physical, psychological and social development, thus improving their opportunities for attending ordinary schools". As of August this year, there were 6,230 such places for special needs children aged six, says a department spokesman, and department figures show there are 6,711 children on the waiting list.

Because of the acute shortage of special education services, parents have to search for training centres, put their children's names on every waiting list, and dig deep into their pockets to pay for private therapists.

The Down Syndrome Association's muscle reinforcement training programme, launched in June, was the result of a funding injection of HK$160,000 by Eu Yan Sang, a company that specialises in traditional Chinese medicine. It's one of six projects for special needs children supported by grants totalling HK$1.1 million from the company.

At the Fu Hong Society Hin Dip Centre in Aberdeen, four-year-old Alex Kwok, who shows signs of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and spatial relation problems - he can't write within a grid nor differentiate between straight and sloping lines - has been undergoing three-hour sessions of multisensory training twice a week.

In an activity room fitted with a spring bed, swings, ball pool and balance bar, Alex and two other children are given various challenges. Listening to classical music through headphones, the children scale a ladder, and then clamber onto a swing and throw sandbags into baskets.

Stephen Chan Tsz-man, occupational therapist and manager of the Hin Dip Centre, says the soothing music can help children screen out peripheral din and help them concentrate on the tasks at hand.

"In addition to their motor skills, their oral sense is also engaged by making them clench plastic in their mouths," he says. "Their sense of touch is engaged, as they are given shaving cream and clay to play with.

"The multisensory exercises give rise to a sense of novelty which, in turn, induces the brain to release dopamine. Hyperactive children like Alex have lower than normal levels of dopamine, and this will diminish the inhibition capability of the brain's prefrontal lobe."

Chan says that the programme will benefit 24 children. Those with autism, developmental delay and ADHD will be put into groups of four for the month-long training. The funds will also be used to organise more workshops for parents on the benefits of multisensory therapy for special needs children, he says.

"The therapy has existed since the 1970s, but it's relatively new to Hong Kong. It's only embraced by a handful of occupational therapists here."

Also pioneering a new therapy for special needs children is Woo Chi-wood, a social worker with the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals' Centre for Family Wellness and Child Development, which provides support services to more than 50 dyslexic children. Helped by a HK$188,000 grant from Eu Yan Sang, Woo has designed a programme that uses music to help children master English vocabulary.

Children with dyslexia have problems comprehending or memorising words, but they tend to have sharp audio sensitivity and so learn better through listening, says Woo. He commissioned a composer to write 32 songs in different genres.

Each song, running for one to two minutes, is used to memorise an English word of two to five letters. Woo says the rhythm of the songs is made to mimic the tempo of the heartbeat, which can help boost memory.

"The CDs can be used by both therapists and parents in a home setting. The letters of an English word and its pronunciation are repeatedly sung by the singer. Some of the songs are soothing, while others are more upbeat. The genres can pique children's interest in listening to the songs."

The six beneficiaries of the Eu Yan Sang grants were picked from 36 applicants by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service. The other three beneficiaries are Caritas Hong Kong's "A Pioneer Project of Early Assessment and Intervention for Children with Developmental Delay"; Heep Hong Society's "Positive Psychology Family Programme"; and Po Leung Kuk's "Talk Wise: Children Development Project".

Mabel Chau Man-ki, chairwoman of Eu Yan Sang Charitable Foundation's Donation and Community Activities Committee, says this is the first time the company has been involved with special needs children.

"Our research shows that support services for young children with special needs are insufficient in the city. The long waiting period means many children fail to get prompt remedial support in their critical growth period."

It's a gesture that Alice Lau, mother of the hyperactive Alex, appreciates. She has taken her son to the outpatient clinic at Queen Mary Hospital, where she says the doctor asks about Alex's progress without prescribing any treatment, as the hospital only treats those above the age of six.

So she has found private therapists who cost HK$1,000 per hour, "which is totally beyond our means," says Lau.

Without proper treatment, Alex's hyperactivity has made him few friends at school. "As he is frisky all the time, his overenthusiastic contact with his classmates leaves bruises on them," says Lau. "Teachers also complain that he's too boisterous in class. He has been like that since he was a baby, running around all the time."

Lau is frustrated by the dearth of support places for preschoolers with special needs. "I have applied for a place with the early education and training centre. But no one can tell me when I'll get a place. They say I can only switch to a faster queue when Alex is five."

Lau feels that may be a bit too late. "The golden time period for receiving remedial support will have passed by then."