Aiding the Autistic

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The 2 Way Centre helps children with special education needs and their parents to become their teachers.

Dato' Dr Lai Fong Hwa.

To Dato’ Dr Lai Fong Hwa, a retired consultant psychiatrist at Penang General Hospital, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a range of conditions characterised by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences.

“Many children with ASD have no problem excelling in education. Children as young as two years old can memorise numbers and alphabets, and they can label thousands of things they see. Some move on and graduate with double degrees and even PhDs. But working in an organisation and living in a society requires communication skills too, and that is what they are lacking,” says Lai.

For Lai, getting the necessary services after diagnosing children with ASD and learning difficulties was a challenge. “There are centres available such as the National Autism Society of Malaysia and the School for Mentally Retarded Children in Penang, but in terms of support for the family, there were none.

“There is a strong need for a support service that empowers the children – to reach goals in school and at work, build healthy relationships, and enjoy emotional well-being. But due to limited skills and workforce, more and more children seem to fall between the cracks in our existing system,” says Lai.

Water play encourages communication among children in a fun way.

He, together with Silviana Bonadei, a Swiss-trained special educator, work with the Penang Mental Health Association to establish the 2 Way Centre to support families who have children with autism and special education needs in various ways, and one of them is helping parents to be teachers.

Teaching Parents to Teach

With over 300 students and six full-time workers, 2 Way Centre is helping parents of children with special education needs to overcome communication, development and learning difficulties.

“At 2 Way Centre, the children come to us after a diagnosis. We then assess and write a report for the doctors, and we prepare an individual education plan, such as the activities that the parents can do at home. We will sit with the parents and show them what they can do with their children at home. If they are not sure, they can ask questions, and they can call us anytime if they are stuck. This is done on a one-on-one basis.

Silviana Bonadei.

“After the assessment is complete, the parents get to decide on the frequency of the follow-up appointments. If they know what to do then they can come back two or four months later, especially those who stay far from Penang,” says Bonadei.

2 Way Centre provides intervention sessions, too. These are done on a one-on-one basis between the child and an educationist. There was the case of a 14-year-old girl who was academically able but was miserable because she didn’t have any friends in school. She began attending the social skills programme designed for adolescents with high-level autism and learned to interact with others. “Using her new social skills, the girl finally befriended two girls in school, thereby averting a slow spiral into depression,” says Bonadei.

When asked about parents who use electronic devices as a teaching medium, Bonadei says, “There was a three-year-old toddler with speech delay who was referred to us. Her delay was caused by the family’s maid placing the toddler in front of the television for up to 10 hours (a day). Fortunately, three months later she began to speak after her aunt began to communicate with her actively.”

According to Lai, although devices and gadgets cause speech delays, children also do learn from them. The key is to use these devices moderately.

Creative Learning

While training parents to teach their child is an essential strategy to overcome communication barriers, children with special education needs must be trained in social settings, too.

With that in mind, 2 Way Centre facilitates social skills training by organising camps for the children. “We started with three-day two-night camps for the children to teach them to learn independently. They learn how to cook and challenge themselves in various activities.

Learning independent living skills is essential.

“The camps are organised without the parents’ participation. Some parents tend to overprotect their children by preventing them from going outside or playing in the mud; the children then get confused about who they should listen to – the parents or us. “In 2012 we extended it to adolescents. A six-day five-night camp was held at a small eco-tourism venue in Kulim, Kedah. The adolescents were given the freedom to choose their own accommodation, whether they wanted to stay with their friends in a two-bedroom lodging or join the others in a longhouse.

“We saw a lot of changes during the camp. There was a young man who only started to talk at 21 years old, and he began to reason at the camp! He said, ‘Papa beat me’, and when we asked him why did his father beat him, he answered, ‘Because naughty’. He started to understand the cause and effect kind of reasoning,” says Bonadei.

The centre continues to redefine innovative ideas to make teaching methods more effective. In 2017 there was a sharp increase in the teachers’ expansion of knowledge; the centre began to introduce new teaching techniques such as drama, and mask and puppetry activities. These activities help children confront emotional issues and conquer behavioural problems.

“Children naturally possess the ability to move fluidly from fantasy to reality, trying on and playing out different roles. They have the freedom to play, and share a bond with the educationists, permitting them to share their hurts or concerns through the safety of storytelling,” says Bonadei.

New Home Needed!

As of 2017, the organisation’s main source of funding comes from corporate donors such as B Braun Medical Industries, donations, the Department of Social Welfare, and through services rendered. (The centre currently charges RM30 per hour for its intervention programme and RM80 for assessment.)

Camps organised by the 2 Way Centre are designed to encourage children and adolescents to socialise with peers and adults away from their parents.

The centre needs at least RM100,000 to run its programmes per year. “We have been trying to get some funding from the Ministry of Health, but we were asked to approach the Ministry of Education because we are doing education. But when we approached the Ministry of Education, we were told to approach the Ministry of Health because we are doing assessments as well. So it is difficult to make them understand that this is a joint discipline,” says Bonadei.

The responses from the ministries are valid, but Bonadei wishes that organisations such as 2 Way Centre were grouped in a separate category. “If we look at the setup in Singapore or Europe, organisations such as 2 Way Centre are categorised under child guidance clinics, meaning they would gather the occupational therapists, speech therapists and special educators all under one roof with social workers, paediatricians and psychiatrists,” says Bonadei.

While the centre has managed to rise above its financial issues, it is in need of a more suitable location. Its current site at the former Veterinary Office on Jalan Gurdwara is in bad shape. “The degradation of the main supporting beam of the main building’s roof is of major concern as it can collapse at any point in time.

“That building is no longer used, and it significantly reduces the work that we can do as we can’t offer support to as many children, unlike in previous years. It has now been three years, and we hope that a solution will appear soon,” says Bonadei.

The centre expresses gratitude to the president of the Mental Health Organisation, Dato’ Marie Ritchie, and Vice President Dato’ Dr Lai Fong Hwa for their invaluable support and guidance, and to all the psychiatrists and psychologists at the Penang General Hospital, and those from private hospitals for the dedicated services they have given to the centre’s clients. 2 Way Centre is located at c/o Veterinary Department, Jalan Gurdwara, and can be contacted at +6016 498 7204. 2 Way Centre encourages the public to help fund the centre through donations.



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