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School offers new hope for children born with autism

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Autistic children play with block toys at Growing Special Education School in Phnom Penh. Photo supplied

School offers new hope for children born with autism

Bott was born a healthy and strong baby, just as any parent would wish for. However, just after his first birthday, he was acting differently from others his age.

Unlike those who enjoy playing and repeating words, Bott wasn’t interested in communicating. At four years, he was mischievous and had little language ability.

Phoeun Lakna, Bott’s mother, said: “When I saw my child acting strange like this, I met with a specialist to consult about his issues. When he was diagnosed with autism, we cried and were sad for our child. But, with the aid of specialists, we never stopped to help our child anyway we could.”

Soon, Lakna was introduced to the Growing Special Education School (GSES). So, naturally, she signed her son up. Since then, his development has rapidly improved and he is now able to attend class with non-spectrum children.

Opened in July last year, GSES was started by Phouk Many, also the mother of an autistic child. Teachers there help Bott and more than 40 other children focus their concentration and learn how to interact with their classmates. Within one year, most children develop substantial language abilities.

Autism is a developmental condition that affects social behaviour and communication. Symptoms can vary widely but diagnosis usually occurs around age two to three.

Located next to a Catholic church in the capital’s Boeung Tompun commune, GSES’ space is tailored for its students’ development. From the pictures on the wall to the shoe area, everything was laid out to make them feel comfortable.

Many, whose second child is autistic, works as the school’s coordinator.

“We work with 43 autistic children – seven girls and 36 boys. There are also 26 children who come on Saturdays,” she said, adding that she is confident her son will eventually be able to attend traditional schools.

Bott’s mother, however, still worries about her son’s ability to integrate into a traditional learning environment.

“I don’t know whether he would acquire knowledge or not because a new school is a complete change. I am happy but also concerned because I know that my child isn’t normal. I must be with him all the time.”

Many says that the school’s teachers work every day and teach with patience and love. She remarked that students are slowly but surely speaking more, learning how to write and improve their concentration skills.

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Teachers at GSES are trained by experts from Singapore. The school currently has some 69 autistic children enrolled with it. Photo supplied

“The staff here are trained by experts from Singapore. We use their written method to instruct our teachers,” the founder said.

The school also works with parents to learn about the individual needs of each student.

Chhai Sophorn Rath, a teacher at GSES, said that teaching the children was sometimes difficult but it is a new experience in her life, finding ways to help children develop.

“I observe the children making remarkable strides. For example, there are children who came in with no language ability. They now can communicate, concentrate and understand what the teachers are saying to them."

“Regarding physical development, students are able to hold a pencil to write. They can also hold spoons to eat rice and drink water by themselves. Some of them are able to speak with the teachers and classmates and able to play with friends,” she says.

Sophorn Rath says that teaching children to maintain eye contact was a large part of developing their communications skills.

Rath said retaining a calm demeanour was an important part of her day.

“We are able to be flexible with the children. All the teachers love their students and hope they will be able to attend traditional school in the future.”

Starting the school on a tight budget, Many received supporting funds from the church nearby. Despite the fact that many private schools charge between $20 and $80 per hour, GSES’ fees are only $40 a month.

According to data from the Ministry of Planning, collected in 2013, 2.1 per cent of the Kingdom’s population has some disability.

Growing Special Education School is located at house 157A, street 10BT in Sansam Kosal 4 village, Boeung Tum Pun commune, Meanchey district, Phnom Penh.

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