Is Hong Kong neglecting the needs of its autistic pupils?
An expert in special education is urging the government to rethink the way it classifies and handles autistic children and to change its funding policy
Ahead of World Autism Awareness Day on April 2, a non-profit organisation has called for changes in government funding policy to improvespecialised publicservices forautistic children.
Hong Kong is home to 25,000 registered autistic children, according to the Autism Children Foundation.
Sandra Tsang Kit-man, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s department of social work and social administration, expects more than 10,000 schoolchildren to be diagnosed with autism in 2017-2018, up from7,200 in 2015-2016.
But there are already long waiting times for government-subsidised rehabilitation services that provide intensive training programmes for autistic children.
“Parents usually have to wait one to two years for services to be allocated, while the best times for these children to receive training are from two-and-a-half to four-and-a-half years old. Autistic children are usually diagnosed at around two-and-a-half-years old or a bit later,” said Keith Lee Seng-hoe, who has been working in the special education field for over 25 years.
Lee is also a project director of the Rainbow Project Learning Centre, a non-profit organisation that offers special education and therapeutic services to autistic children.
Autistic children, by the United Nations’ definition, are mainly characterised by their unique social interactions, non-standard ways of learning, keen interest in specific subjects, inclination to routines, challenges in typical communication and particular ways of processing sensory information.
There is no known single cause for autism, nor it can be cured or prevented.
While autism has been classified as a disability under the Rehabilitation Programme Plan, the government encourages students with autism to be integrated into ordinary schools, and says those with learning difficulties should be enrolled in aided special schools, which mainly cater to children with visual or hearing impairments and physical or intellectual disabilities.
But Lee stressed that autistic children must receive proper training before going to ordinary schools.
“Autism is a special disorder – we need to have a tailor-made approach to help them learn. The government seems to disregard what specific type of disorder or disability the children have and just puts them all under one roof,” he said.
The Rainbow Project adopts a methodology that works in training and educating autistic children in a classroom setting – a system better known as the Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children model.
Lee was not sure if Rainbow Project could be changed to become an aided special school.
“They’ve all said similar things; that our learning centre and curriculum do not conform with the bureau’s funding policy,” he said of his appeals to the government over the years.
In a reply, an Education Bureau spokeswoman said the Rainbow Project Learning Centre was registered as a private school offering “non-formal” curriculum, which made it ineligiblefor government funding.
“In 2017, the Education Bureau will continue to support schools in applying strategies and related teaching and learning resources that can address the learning needs of students with autistic spectrum disorder at senior secondary levels,” she added.
What is autism?
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) comprise a group of behavioural conditions with characteristic signs and symptoms.
A neurological and developmental disorder that usually appears during the first three years of life. A child with autism appears to live in their own world, showing little interest in others and a lack of social awareness.
Sufferers are of average or above average intelligence. They do not usually have the same learning disabilities many autistic people have, but they may have more specific learning difficulties. They have fewer problems with speech but may still have trouble understanding and processing language.
Also known as “pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified”. This subcategory should be used when there is abnormal and impaired development present only after the age of three, and a lack of sufficient demonstrable abnormalities in one or two of the three areas of psychopathology required for the diagnosis.
Two typical cases
He was extremely interested in letters and numbers before he was even two years old, but he didn’t play with blocks or stuffed toys. That’s how a 37-year-old mother started noticing her son, who is now three-and-a-half years old, was a little bit different from other children.
“My son wasn’t speaking at all. He might occasionally say one or two words. And he wasn’t really interested in playing with other kids,” the English-speaking mother, who wished to remain anonymous, recalled.
Initially she went to a speech therapist, who told her “there’s something more going on than just speech delay”.
The next step was to arrange for a more in-depthevaluation of her son. At the age of two he was then diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
“You never want to hear that your child isn’t perfect.”
However, she was also relieved to find out why her son was different.
He is now receiving preschool education in a learning centre that caters to English-speaking autistic children, where she can see he is engaging more than in the past.
“I suppose that, of course, every parent kind of wants their children to get into the mainstream,” she said. “If being in a specialised programme is just the best choice for him, that’s what we will do.”
Another mother, whose 10-year-old son was diagnosed with ASD when he was two, said there was limited support for English-speaking parents in Hong Kong.
In onesuch institution to which she had applied, her son had been on the waiting list for six years.
“There are not many English-speaking learning centres here. And some centres were not well-funded and went out of business,” she said.