Hong Kong parents’ soaring demand for learning disability tests

Experts point to the ‘unrealistic expectations’ of tiger parents, saying there’s no evidence of a rise in number of children with developmental issues

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 April, 2016, 10:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 April, 2016, 12:16pm

Hong Kong’s tiger parents have been warned against having unrealistic expectations amid an alarming rise in the number of children being tested for learning disabilities.

Government and private agencies say the number of children taking developmental assessment tests has risen nearly 20 per cent in the past five years.

While the government is building more test centres to cope with the burgeoning demand, experienced paediatricians attributed the growth largely to the misplaced anxieties of parents, saying there was no evidence suggesting local children were having more developmental problems.

“Some kids studying in elite schools might just be underperforming in studies and were found to be normal after tests ... but parents still asked for medication,” Dr Fanny Lam Wai-fan, a developmental-behavioural paediatrician, said. Lam cautioned parents against having “unreasonable expectations”.

Medication is available for symptoms of attention deficit ­disorder, for example, but only when the child has been diagnosed by doctors.

Chinese University paediatrics professor Dr Ellis Hon Kam-lun also cited cases of parents making their children sit tests after they seemed tongue-tied or failed to pronounce a word properly.

Department of Health statistics showed the number of children aged 12 or younger referred by doctors or psychologists for government child assessment services went up 16 per cent from 8,476 in 2011 to 9,872 last year.

The waiting list for preliminary testing has also lengthened. Last year, only about 70 per cent of cases had assessments completed within six months – the department’s performance pledge – down from 94 per cent in 2011.

In the private sector, figures were harder to come by, but Lam estimated a rise of about 20 per cent over the past five years.

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Under the developmental assessment by public health centres, a child is first interviewed by a public health nurse, then thoroughly assessed by a multi-disciplinary team made up of professionals including physiotherapists and audiologists.

The department said the increase of new referral cases could be explained by a number of reasons, including the rise in birth rates in recent years and an “increase in public and professional awareness”.

But Hon saw it this way: “Hongkongers are holding higher expectations of their children. Among the children I have seen, half were healthy but were labelled by their mothers as abnormal. At the moment there is no evidence showing we have more sick children.”

Lam said the “problematic behaviour” of children might come from family disharmony and the absence of motivation to study.

But University of Hong Kong educational psychologist Professor Lam Shui-fong said the number of children being diagnosed with autism was on the rise, according to a study done by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2000, one in every 150 children was diagnosed with autism. In 2012, the figure was one in 68. In Hong Kong, about 4.5 per cent of children aged two to six are diagnosed with physical or psychological disabilities each year.

Lam advised parents to consult multiple sources, such as nurses from maternal and child health centres or teachers, before taking their children for tests.

To cope with the increasing demand, the government earmarked some HK$13 million this year for building another child assessment centre, on top of the existing six. Another HK$12 million was reserved for setting up a temporary centre in Ngau Tau Kok to speed up services with extra manpower.