City Weekend

A Hong Kong mother’s struggle to find the right therapist for her autistic son

Her family’s journey sheds light on city’s psychologists and need for suitable registration system in sector

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 September, 2018, 2:46pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 September, 2018, 2:46pm

While it is normal for children to cry, Chan, a Hong Kong mother of an 18-month-old boy, soon realised something was off with her son. His crying would last for hours, day in, day out. She was willing to do whatever was needed to get him help.

The boy was diagnosed with severe autism, also known as low-functioning autism, which causes extreme and uncontrollable behaviour such as door slamming or screaming and deficits in social interaction.

Over a two-year period, Chan made countless visits to different clinics, spending HK$80,000 (US$10,000) in total. She complained that, as a layman, she was clueless as to how to choose a psychologist in Hong Kong, with no way to discern who was qualified.

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Chan made her decisions based on the length of credits cited by therapists, how fancy their offices were, and how high their rates were – on average consultations cost about HK$3,500 an hour – assuming an exorbitant price meant better treatment.

“We did not know what we could do as parents to help our son improve in his daily life.”

We did not know what we could do as parents to help our son improve in his daily life
Chan, mother of son with autism

Chan, who asked that only her surname be used, said practitioners she consulted spent a lot of time assessing the child repeatedly. This made him more uncomfortable and irritable rather than easing his symptoms.

None of the psychologists they saw was able to explain why he reacted to certain things and what the parents could do to avoid setting him off or improve his condition.

“At the age of 4, he did not speak, only cried all day,” the mother added. “Nothing could calm him down.”

Without proper treatment, Chan’s son began to suffer speech problems and cognitive challenges.

The mother’s plight and confusion over how to choose a qualified psychologist in Hong Kong is shared by many others.

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No system exists to supervise the standard of a therapist practising in town, meaning anyone can open an office and call themselves a therapist.

To close the loophole, the Department of Health is proposing a new voluntary accreditation system for a number of health care professions, including clinical psychologists.

The scheme will cover other professions in the sector, such as dietitians, educational psychologists and speech therapists.

Under the plan, the government will empower a single professional body to supervise a registration system, allowing qualified practitioners to rightfully claim they have gained official recognition.

Dr Charles Pau Wai-ho, of the Hong Kong Psychological Society, said there was a pressing need for the city to set a minimum acceptable standard that clinical psychologists should meet before they are allowed to practise.

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The society numbers about 400 members and is in talks with the government to appoint a body for the voluntary scheme, said Pau, who heads the group’s division of clinical psychology.

Hong Kong has witnessed a rise in the number of children and adolescents suffering from a mental disorder, according to a mental health report published by the Food and Health Bureau in 2017.

Timing is everything when it comes to a mental disorder
Dr Charles Pau, Hong Kong Psychological Society

The number of psychiatric cases increased 52 per cent between 2011 and 2012 and 2015 and 2016, according to the Hospital Authority. The disorders most often present in children over this period were autism spectrum disorders and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“Timing is everything when it comes to a mental disorder,” Pau said. “Patients cannot be shopping around for the right psychologists because the condition may become life-threatening if treatment is stalled.

“Patients are already very vulnerable. The last thing we’d want for them is to question the qualifications of local clinical psychologists.”

For the Chan family, one good therapist was all the boy needed to get better.

In 2016, purely by luck, his mother came across a qualified clinical psychologist who could offer clear direction on what the parents needed to do.

The practitioner was able to give advice on behaviour around the house, in their daily lives and even at the boy’s school.

“This was exactly what I needed,” Chan said. “I wish it had not taken so long before we found the right person. It’s been quite a torture for my son and I over the years.”