Empowering children with special needs to be ready for their future

James Cook University graduate Grace Tan’s company Our Special Story nurtures those with Autism Spectrum Disorder and special needs towards functional independence

Ms Tan is amazed by every little improvement her children at Our Special Story make, such as completing a puzzle independently, waiting patiently, and making their first sound. PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Growing up, Ms Grace Tan watched her parents do charity work and donate generously to various causes.

Inspired to give back to society too, she decided to embark on a career as a behaviour therapist for children with special needs after graduating with a Bachelor of Psychological Science (Honours) from James Cook University (JCU) in 2017.

Two years later, she founded Our Special Story, a company that nurtures children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and special needs.

Its curriculum guides them towards functional independence by providing quality and individualised behaviour intervention based on Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) principles. On top of one-on-one home based therapy, students enjoy school shadowing and academic support. A wide range of behaviours and skill sets such as speech and language skills, school readiness and motor skills are taught.

Says the 29-year-old co-founder: "In my previous jobs, I saw a large gap between the quality and cost of therapy and intervention services for children with special needs. Witnessing the growth and progress a child can make with good quality ABA therapy, I felt that all parents and children with autism and special needs deserve access to effective and affordable therapy.

"I decided that this was my 'now or never' moment. Fear was not going to stop me from achieving my goal."

Doing good work

Ms Tan's daily schedule is jam-packed; she teaches, supervises her therapists, and plans and updates programmes on top of writing reports, managing the company's social media accounts, conducting consultations and meeting potential clients.

It gets busy, but Ms Tan finds work meaningful. She says: "It's about empowering the children's learning and enabling them to be more functionally independent in their everyday lives. Teaching children with autism is not easy. Something as simple as writing, drawing or cutting could be extremely challenging."

Therapists who help children develop these motor skills are required to undergo thorough training before they begin work. Continual staff training and regular supervision ensure their tip-top performance.

The company also provides proper support and knowledge to the primary caregivers of children with special needs - usually their parents. For example, she teaches them easy activities they can do with their kids outside of therapy. This helps minimise any stress or anxiety they may feel.

Ms Tan says she is driven by the connections she forms with the kids - the handholding, smiles, and eye contact.

She says: "I am amazed by every little improvement they make, completing a puzzle independently, waiting patiently, making their first sound.

"They teach me so much - compassion for people who may be different, patience as they try to understand the world around them, and gratitude to appreciate the simple pleasures in life. Making a difference to a child's life is an opportunity that not everyone enjoys."

Innovating along the way

With the highs come the lows; running a business is stressful. "There are countless nights I deliberate over how to teach something in a way that my students can understand; sometimes I feel incompetent. It is stressful having to constantly manage parents' expectations and make progress happen," Ms Tan says.

Ms Tan's time at JCU equipped her with strong communication skills, which help her tackle the challenges of running her business head-on. PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

This year's circuit breaker in Singapore was a particularly challenging period for the fledgling business, and for its parents and caregivers of children with special needs. Due to restrictions, Our Special Story had to suspend its home sessions and help parents engage and teach their children online.

To make up for very limited online resources and materials, her team started making their own free printables. Clients found the materials beneficial and easy to use.

Putting knowledge to practice

Ms Tan is grateful for her training at JCU, which helps her to tackle the challenges of running her business head-on.

"I learnt to be a more effective communicator and to present my ideas clearly and succinctly. JCU also contributed to my ability as a behaviour consultant to counsel and provide reassurance to parents; as well as when dealing with different stakeholders," she adds.

Ms Tan reveals that she chose to pursue her studies at JCU because she had heard good things about its undergraduate psychology courses, which are accredited by the Australian Psychology Accreditation Council (APAC). She also intends to pursue a Masters of Psychology (Clinical) next.

"Being someone who enjoys hands-on experiences, the supervised practicum in the course was a big draw. On top of that, JCU is the only university here that has an on-campus psychology clinic," she points out.

A highlight of her time at JCU was her involvement in a joint research project between JCU and the National Healthcare Group Polyclinics on patients with Type 2 diabetes mellitus. Ms Tan gained invaluable knowledge about the importance of research and how its results can improve treatment programmes and benefit patients.

With her skills in psychology and business acumen, Ms Tan dreams of starting a centre to provide group classes that help improve the school readiness and social communication skills of children with special needs.

She says: "I advocate for inclusive classrooms, where neurotypical children and special needs children can learn together.

"We need to move past pursuing to be the best academically, and instead teach children to include and encompass people who are differently abled. Then, we can build character and grow as a society to a different kind of greatness."

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