Pey was born different from other children. Her strange behaviour had her parents and family convinced that she was under the spell of a spirit and needed to be cured by herbalists or spiritual healers.

Even after she was diagnosed as autistic at the age of three, these beliefs on the part of her family persisted and they continued to try and cure her with magic spells and herbal medicines.

These traditional beliefs can often delay the time it takes for special needs children to be diagnosed and receive assistance and overcoming such beliefs and attitudes is central to the mission of Special Education Cambodia (SEC) – a website that is focused on helping special needs children in the Kingdom by providing information to parents, educators and others on this topic.

The SEC website is aimed at raising awareness and sharing information with Cambodians about special needs children and children with disabilities.

Heng Sophaneth, the founder of SEC, says that “I was inspired to start this page because of the confusion and misleading information that some people have about children with special needs and their conditions.”

She says that people believe that special needs children – especially those with autism – can be cured or improved with traditional medicines, magic rituals, milk powder or even by something as simple as eliminating gadgets from their life.

“I have also seen and heard the struggles of parents who have spent thousands of dollars on the wrong interventions, holding onto false hopes that someday their children are going to be the same as everybody else, instead of looking for the right support and accepting them the way they are,” says Sophaneth.

Sophaneth has a master’s degree in special education from Flinders University in Australia along with eight years of experience working with special needs children.

“I think it is important for me to put myself out there as a source of information where parents and guardians of the children can access information that is transparent and straightforward,” Sophaneth says.

Lesson book for special needs children, particularly those with autism. Photo supplied

She says she is focused on raising awareness by training teachers and parents free of charge who are willing to learn about special needs education and provide advice online and via telephone to parents.

Autism can’t be cured through spiritual or any other means. But it can be understood and managed in a way that reduces stress for the parents and gives the most encouragement and assistance to the child.

However, Sophaneth says that one of the most asked questions from parents remains something along the lines of “will my child ever be normal or like other kids.”

“There is no cure or shortcut for this. I do not know what might be possible in the future, but for the moment autism is a permanent disability,” she says.

She explains that by disability she means a condition that can limit a person’s ability to do certain things, such as blindness.

And just like there are alternative ways for blind people to learn to live and carry on with their lives, the same is true for autism.

“There are interventions that can be used to help support them so that they can learn how to live and function in society. This includes daily activities, social and behavioural aspects that can strengthen one’s ability in interacting and living in the society,” Sophaneth explains.

Starting with simple things like playing games to strengthen their hands and improve their fine motor skills to helping plan out routine activities to answering parent’s questions, Sophaneth tries to provide practical steps that parents can take at home with their children.

Sophaneth says she focuses on being transparent and straightforward when communicating with parents because that’s the best way to help her clients.

“Being transparent and straightforward means telling them to accept their children, to stop hiding from their problems, and to look for the right support rather than being scared of their children’s conditions.

“Bear in mind that at the end of the day, it is not about us. It is about the children and how we are going to support them in a way that they will be able to function independently in this society,” Sophaneth says.

Sophaneth is helping to raise awareness about other issues that special needs children may have such as learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities and other neurological disorders beyond just autism on her website and social media.

“It is crucial to be aware of different types of disabilities, especially for teachers and parents because by knowing the type of disabilities the children have we are able to understand and learn how we can support them according to their needs,” she says.

Though Pey was not in special education through SEC, she received suitable therapy from one of a very few special needs facilities in Cambodia.

Today Pey, 9, is a regular student at the Growing Special Education School (GSES), a charity school supported by the Catholic Church and the parents of the students attending.

Unfortunately, the same as every other school in the country, GSES was ordered to shut down to curb the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hands of Hope Community (HHC) is an example of an NGO that has been tackling issues related to special needs children in Cambodia.

“Chan Sarin, director of HHC, has been working with national and international organizations to create educational policy for special needs children based in the Cambodian context,” Sophaneth says.

She said that according to Sarin, who is also president of the Cambodia Autism Network, there were 1,158 children with autism-related disorders according to the latest data collected in April of 2019.

However, that number was based on just six provinces and it is assumed that there may be up to 20,000 or more people with autism in Cambodia.

Sophaneth said no evidence has been shown as to what directly causes autism. However, there are a few factors that are linked to autism.

“There are certain genetic factors that are strongly correlated to autism, as well as other factors such as pre, peri and post-natal variables.”

Heng Sophaneth – the founder of Special Education Cambodia (SEC). Photo supplied

Children with autism are often different from other kids, but they are also different from each other – which is why autism is properly referred to as autism spectrum disorder, because there is a wide spectrum of ways in which autism can manifest itself.

While they often share some common characteristics – mainly with social, behavioural and communication aspects – it is important to keep in mind that no two autistic children are the same.

“Each of them is on the spectrum and, thus, the condition varies from one to another. I mention this because I want to emphasise how important it is to take this into account,” says Sophaneth.

In order to assist their children in learning at home, parents have to be patient, accepting and trust in the process. Most importantly, the kids should be sent to special schools for early interventions as soon as they can attend.

Sophaneth quoted Sarin as saying that “parents should send their children with autism to school before the age of four or as early as the age of three.”

She said what parents should do is put their children in special needs schools starting at the age of three. The schools should be equipped with special education specialists and curriculum that promotes physical education, music, arts, language and communication.

They should also allow their children to join in different activities with other non-autistic children to learn about their surrounding environment. They should also work closely with schools because parental involvement is very important for special education.

Like any other job, Sophaneth says, being a special education teacher can be demanding.

“The most challenging part is to keep up with their unlimited energy. It can be exhausting sometimes after a full day at work,” says Sophaneth.

Visit the SEC Facebook page @SpecialEducationCambodia or their website for more information about special needs education in Cambodia.