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A rewarding career helping children with autism lead productive lives

Studying psychology has given JCU graduate Aishah Zaini the skills and confidence necessary to help her students with special needs

Inspired by her stints as a student volunteer, JCU alumnus Aishah Zaini actively searched for jobs associated with mental health needs after graduating from university last year. PHOTO: TED CHEN
Inspired by her stints as a student volunteer, JCU alumnus Aishah Zaini actively searched for jobs associated with mental health needs after graduating from university last year. PHOTO: TED CHEN

Volunteering with teenagers and children with special needs when she was a secondary school student led Ms Aishah Zaini to discover her interest in working in the field of mental health and education.

One of the voluntary welfare organisations where she helped at was special education school Rainbow Centre. There she first encountered children with special needs. Interacting with them touched her and made her realise that she wanted to help them improve their skills and lead productive lives.

This experience made such an impression on her that after graduating with a Bachelor of Psychological Science from James Cook University (JCU) in April last year, she actively searched for a job associated with mental health needs.

Since August last year, she has been working as a behavioural therapist at Autism Recovery Network (ARN).

The 23-year-old conducts therapy sessions at the centre or at students’ homes to facilitate activities, such as group instructions and social play, for children between the ages of 2 and 7. She also conducts socialisation classes to encourage students to participate in interpersonal interactions and learn classroom behaviours such as listening, responding and complying with group instructions.


Learning about psychological theories and therapy methods at JCU has equipped Ms Aishah with a good understanding of how to effectively help her students. PHOTO: TED CHEN

A strong foundation in behavioural therapy

Studying psychology has helped Ms Aishah analyse the thoughts and actions of people and form a strong foundation for the training she later received in ARN.

After completing her GCE A-levels, she studied Bachelor of Psychological Science at the Singapore campus of JCU. She chose to study at the university because its psychology programmes are accredited by the Australian Psychology Accreditation Council. She also valued the fact that JCU is recognised in Singapore with “University” status.

“This reinforced its status as a high-quality education and research institution in Singapore,” she says, “and I thought that this would grant me better job prospects in Singapore.”

JCU’s Bachelor of Psychological Science is delivered on a trimester system, where there are three study periods in a year instead of two, allowing students to complete the standard course load over two years instead of three. This meant that Ms Aishah would be able to enter the workforce and gain work experience earlier.

Another advantage was that students are free to plan their modules each trimester. This enabled Ms Aishah to include voluntary internships as part of her coursework; a year-and-a-half after starting her studies at JCU, she applied for a three-month internship at Club HEAL, a psychiatric rehabilitation centre that focuses on empowering persons with mental health issues with skills training, home-based community support and counselling.

She took up the internship because she wanted to experience working in a mental health-focused setting so that she could interact with mental health professionals and patients to better understand their experiences and perspectives.

At JCU she learnt from inspirational lecturers who made her learning journey more enjoyable. These included Dr Peter Chew, who taught the modules Exploring Psychology, and Psychological Research Methods and Interpretation.

She recalls: “He was a supportive and approachable mentor who constantly checked in on us, and encouraged us to ask questions. His patience is commendable.”

Psychological theories she learnt included developmental psychology that enabled her to understand the growth of a child and how his or her behaviour changes over time.

Modules in the psychology programme also taught her about operant conditioning and positive reinforcement, which is a theory in applied behaviour analysis (ABA) therapy.

Ms Aishah explains: “According to ABA therapy, adding a reinforcing stimulus following a behaviour would increase its likelihood of occurring again. Hence, learning psychology allowed me to perceive the learning process of a child, and from there, I am able to improve it in ways that have been proven to be successful.”


Programme supervisor at ARN, Ms Sharon May O. Marasigan (left), is impressed with Ms Aishah’s patience and can-do spirit at work. PHOTO: TED CHEN

Understanding the needs of her students

The behavioural therapy methods Ms Aishah picked up at university has enabled her to help some of her students at ARN to come out of their shell.

There was one student, in particular, who did not talk to other people, including his parents. “He would often play by himself. He would whine, cry or snatch when he wanted something,” she says.

Ms Aishah used reinforcement and training to encourage him to interact more. Eventually, he was able to respond to questions asked by his parents and teachers, and use meaningful words to convey his interests.

Her patience and positive attitude has made an impression on her colleagues at ARN. Ms Sharon May O. Marasigan, a programme supervisor at ARN, says that Ms Aishah is always enthusiastic when working with her students.

She explains: “She carries a productive attitude that does not change even in unpleasant or difficult situations. She is responsible and finishes the task or reports assigned to her. She also takes feedback positively and makes sure to learn from it and improve.”

For Ms Aishah, it’s all about helping her students gain the right skills to lead better lives. She experiences job satisfaction when she witnesses her students making progress in their daily functioning, language skills, IQ skills and behaviours.

She says. “Being able to help them be more productive and gain important skills to lead better lives makes me feel it’s worth it to be in this industry and job.”

Visit https://psychology.jcu.edu.sg for more information on the Bachelor of Psychological Science programme offered at James Cook University.