New programme for students who have both autism and intellectual disabilities

Education Minister Chan Chun Sing (centre) joining students in a fireworks straw art activity at MINDS Fernvale Gardens School, on Aug 4, 2022. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - Students who have autism with intellectual disabilities (ASD-ID) will benefit from a new curriculum at Fernvale Gardens School in Sengkang that aims to better meet their needs, as well as more autism-friendly spaces.

This comes after the school, which is under the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (Minds), observed over the years a growing trend of children with both conditions.

Currently, Fernvale Gardens School has 300 students, more than half of whom have ASD-ID, up from about 50 per cent last year.

The revamped curriculum, which was announced on Thursday (Aug 4) by Minds, has benefited about 50 students since it was piloted in September last year.

The plan is to roll it out to all students by next year.

Fernvale Gardens School principal Matthew Ou said students will be given more avenues to explore their interests at a younger age and deepen their strengths as they get older. The school caters to students aged seven to 18.

Possible areas of interests include sports and games, visual arts, and information and communications technology.

Mr Ou said that lessons were previously more focused on functional skills such as numeracy and daily living. Building on this, the new curriculum will place more emphasis on individual students' interests and learning in teams, to help them discover their strengths and pick up social skills, he added.

"We encourage them to find one or two interests by the time they are of secondary school age," he said.

Teachers have been trained in recent years to handle students coming in with not just intellectual disability but also autism.

Mr Ou said that intellectual disability is characterised by difficulties in problem-solving, abstract thinking and planning, whereas autism is defined mainly by having issues with social integration and communication, and repetitive behaviour.

People with autism also have heightened sensitivity to sound and light and tend to be fixated on certain things.

"Because ASD-ID students have a combination of these issues, multiple strategies are required to engage them," Mr Ou added.

Across Minds' four schools, there has been a 42 per cent increase in the number of ASD-ID students from 2020 to last year.

As at last month, there are more than 900 students with intellectual disability, as well as ASD-ID, across the four schools.

The new curriculum will be introduced to the other Minds' schools from next year in phases.

Education Minister Chan Chun Sing was present at Thursday's launch at Fernvale Gardens School of the new programme and a new special student care centre, which can take up to 50 children.

Fernvale Gardens School has refurbished two classrooms to include autism-friendly features such as lower ceilings and window panels to lower noise levels, as well as work stations to demarcate clear physical structures for students who require predictability and routine.

The school has also taken special care to avoid bright colours and stick to neutral or calming colours for children with sensory issues.

Ms Rachel Wee, 47, whose two sons aged 13 and 15 have ASD-ID and attend Fernvale Gardens School, hopes the new programme will help them to find their interests.

"My younger son likes to draw - it's his form of expression and communication. He started with stickman drawings at the age of five, and now he can draw out scenes from real life," said the housewife.

"For children with autism, you need to find something they really like so they can put all their attention into it... and hopefully can contribute to society."

Her husband, Mr William Wong, 40, who works in corporate sales, said: "We worry a lot about the children's future as they get older. I hope they can learn all the self-help skills in school so they can take care of themselves when we're no longer around."

Correction note: This article has been updated for accuracy.

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