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Operation Santa Claus

How low-income Hong Kong families with autistic children can receive subsidised therapy

NGO Rainbow Project, together with funding from charity campaign Operation Santa Claus, seeks to close gap in government services

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 November, 2016, 2:32pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 November, 2016, 7:25pm

Like every parent, Mrs Cheung wants her son to “live a happy life”. But for nine-year-old James, the learning curve is steeper than most. He was diagnosed with medium-functioning autism with a particular weakness in speech when he was four.

“He was not able to walk until two, and he could not hold his head up when sitting,” Cheung, who prefers not to reveal her full name, says of her son’s situation. He was first assessed to have developmental delays with autism tendencies at the age of two.

“He could not articulate clearly and could not speak in sentences. When I could not understand him, both of us got very frustrated with each other,” Cheung recalls.

Parents of autistic kids need support too as more cases may be expected

James had to wait for two more years after initial test results on his condition, to go through another round of government subsidised child assessment which eventually diagnosed him with autism.

Keith Lee, director of Rainbow Project – a non-profit organisation offering special education and therapeutic services to autistic children – says James is one of many whose treatment was delayed due to limited resources in the city’s public services for kids with special educational needs.

“The golden years for autistic kids to receive training are from 2.5 to 4.5 years old. Once a child is diagnosed, training should start because the earlier they receive the training, the higher chance they have of integrating into mainstream schools,” Lee says.

The golden years for autistic kids to receive training are from 2.5 to 4.5 years old ... The earlier they receive the training, the higher chance they have of integrating into mainstream schools
Keith Lee, director of Rainbow Project

Cheung, who quit her job to take care of James full-time since he was two, said the family could not afford to enrol James into private centres for speech therapy, after government-subsidised therapies ended when he turned six.

James currently attends primary school like 4,420 other autistic children in Hong Kong.

However, with funding from Operation Santa Claus, the annual fundraiser organised by the South China Morning Post and RTHK, James is finally able to attend 45-minute speech therapy sessions at Rainbow Project’s centre in Sai Ying Pun on a weekly basis for HK$170 per class – a fifth of the full fee.

In the coming year, Operation Santa Claus will subsidise 35 low-income families to ensure their autistic children receive regular therapy sessions at the centre.

“Our mission is to close the gap in government services, so that low-income families get an equal opportunity to provide timely treatment for their children,” Lee says.

As for James, he is now learning how to tell a story and express himself through one-on-one sessions with a speech therapist using picture cards and toys.

“He has become much happier. Now I can understand simple sentences from him telling me what he did at school and what he would like to eat,” Cheung says with a smile.

“I am looking forward to him telling me more and more in future.”