Autistic five-year-old Janny can now express herself through singing, as her family could afford to take her to private therapy before subsidised government help arrived. But other children are not so fortunate.
"Children with special educational needs all require help, even if their family backgrounds are different," Simon Tang, Janny's father, said. "But those from less well-off families may not be able to afford [private care] and the years they spend waiting would be wasted."
Janny waited for two years for government help after being diagnosed with autism at the age of three. In that time, her father had spent as much as HK$14,000 a month on occupational, speech and other therapy.
"Even though we can afford that, we spent a lot of time searching for the right services. With no help, it was difficult," said Tang.
A vital educational window for children with special needs is being squandered as the average waiting time for government-funded services at early education and training centres is a year. For services at special child-care centres - which care for moderately and severely disabled children to facilitate their growth and development - the average waiting time is 17 months.
Ma Chui-ling, head of the Christian Service Early Education and Training Centre in Choi Wan, said her centre admitted 56 new children this September - 35 of them were already aged five. Her centre can accommodate 90 children from birth to six years old each year. "The later the children are provided with therapy, the longer they need to help them improve. The problem is many of them have to wait until they're five to receive subsidised services and we only have a year to help," Ma said.
Labour Party lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, chairman of the education panel's subcommittee on integrated education, urged the government to provide more places for subsidised services.
The Social Services Department said it is monitoring waiting times for pre-primary services.