Call to strengthen support for students with special needs and their parents

A family of participants at an event titled Craft Fun, held at Boon Lay Community Club, on Jan 9, 2022. PHOTO: CARINGSG

SINGAPORE - Support for students with special needs has grown in the past years but there are key gaps that need to be filled, said parents, therapists and special education teachers.

Parents, educators and counsellors The Straits Times spoke to said that while special needs education has received more focus over the years, there is a need for more work and education opportunities for adults with special needs.

Ms Tan Bee Ngah, head of department at Metta School, noted that parents of special needs children are often worried about their children's future.

"One of the stressors is not knowing what is in store for the child after school. Students who are part of our Employment Pathway Programme (EPP) who successfully transit to the school-to-work programme will start working at the age of 19.

"It could be quite stressful for the parents who ask themselves, 'Is my child ready?', 'If my child is not accepted into the school-to-work programme, where else can he or she go?'. These are unique stressors for such parents," she said.

The EPP at Metta School is a two-year non-certification vocational track programme where students undertake work attachment opportunities and are referred to SG Enable, an agency dedicated to enabling persons with disabilities, depending on their capabilities for support after course completion.

Despite this existing pathway, Ms Tan said there have been complex cases where students could not receive support from SG Enable, even though they had the capability to work.

Citing one example, she said: "There are cases where the female students are unable to manage their menstruation, and it is quite highly likely SG Enable will not be able to help the student, even though the student has the ability to work. So the student's (grasp of) daily living skills could impede their chance of going out to work."

In the case of socio-emotional support for both caregivers and special needs children, counsellors said parents often felt anxious when their children are diagnosed with special needs and take time to adapt their parenting style.

Therefore, it was important for caregivers to seek help early on and lay a strong groundwork for effective communication between them and their children, they said.

Ms Tang Hui Min, speech therapist at SPD, formerly known as the Society for the Physically Disabled, said: "In some cases, the child might be non-verbal and may have a meltdown because he has no way to communicate what he wants."

She said therapists could assess the child's abilities and recommend communication tools in such cases.

"For example, getting the child to use a writing board or speech-generating device will help parents communicate with him and relieve the stress on caregivers because they can understand the child better," she said.

Other methods could be understanding which of the five love languages the child prefers, and spending quality time with the child to understand his likes and dislikes. The five love languages were conceptualised by American author Gary Chapman as a method to understand individual emotional needs.

Ms Gina Tan, lead social worker at SPD, added that social workers could provide an ecosystem of support to parents including directing them to financial assistance schemes, providing them with emotional support, and putting them in touch with a network of parents who could guide them.

Dr Lim Hong Huay from caregiver support charity CaringSG said that along with better work and school opportunities and professional support, there was a need for greater public awareness about special needs.

Dr Lim, who has two children with autism, founded CaringSG in 2020 to help caregivers struggling during the pandemic.

The charity conducts different initiatives that cater to the needs of caregivers, connecting them with peers, volunteers and professional care services.

One of them is CAREKaki which equips grassroots leaders and volunteers with knowledge about disabilities, and teaches them how they can approach caregivers and people with disabilities.

CaringSG's CAREconnect and CAREKaki programmes are funded by Temasek Foundation and the Enabling Lives Initiative (ELI) Grant by SG Enable and Tote Board.

Dr Lim said: "Awareness about special needs has improved over the years, but there is still room for more inclusivity. There are times when parents share with me that people pass remarks when they are out with their children.

"I believe that while people are more aware and willing to help, they may not know how to do so. This is one area we need to work on. Supporting caregivers requires an all-hands-on-deck approach, with people willing to step up from the public, private and social sector."

Readers can find out more about CaringSG at their website.

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