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Understanding of autism education increasing locally

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Students take part in group activities at GSES Special Education School. GSES

Understanding of autism education increasing locally

Parents who have children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are becoming increasingly aware of this congenital cerebral paralysis and are sending their children for special education classes in private educational institutes and organisations and state-recognised schools.

Many parents expect their children to go to school with well-trained teachers, and hope they will be able to integrate into public schools like regular kids, while others only expect their children to become more independent.

Chan Sarin, the principal of Takhmao Special Education High School in Kandal province’s Takhmao town which provides education for children with ASD from kindergarten to Grade 12 and is accredited by the government, told The Post in a recent interview that the enrolment of children with autism is on the rise.

“It shows that parents have more understanding than in the past when parents generally did not realise that their child was autistic,” he said.

Sarin, a former president of Hands of Hope Community – established in 2014 before becoming Takhmao Special Education High School in 2021 – said that in Cambodia, there are many specialist autism schools operating in Phnom Penh and the provinces of Kandal, Battambang, Kampong Chhnang, Pursat and Siem Reap.

“I do not have data on the number of children with autism nationwide, but when we conducted a workshop in 2019, we discovered more than 1,000 children with autism in 25 districts of six provinces. We estimate that there are more than 20,000 children with autism in Cambodia,” he added.

The Takhmao school is the sixth institution recognised by the state as an institution which can offer specialised education exclusively. The first five special education high schools in the capital’s Phnom Penh Thmey and Chbar Ampov communes and in the provinces of Siem Reap, Kampong Cham and Battambang only provide education for children who are deaf and blind.

With 30 teachers to support 150 children, Growing Special Education School (GSES), which receives most of its funding from the Boeung Tumpun Catholic Community in Phnom Penh, has also seen an increase in the number of enrolments by autistic students.

Phok Many, a coordinator at GSES, said she was not sure why parents were sending more of their children to the school, but it was likely because the hybrid school offered affordable education and produced good results.

Many, who started the school because she is the mother of an autistic child, told The Post: “I know many children study at other schools, but I wanted to give the opportunity of education to students who would otherwise have nowhere to go.”

Rithy is an autistic child whose parents sent him to a private school near his home in the capital’s Choam Chao commune for about three years. His mother had to sit in the classroom with him to assist him. When his mother heard about GSES, Sem Phimean enrolled her 7-year-old son. Rithy, who excels in jumping and spinning like a fan, has been studying there for almost a year.

“Since studying there, Rithy has been calmer and has a better understanding of things. He is getting better at taking care of small tasks for himself, such as going to the bathroom. I have found GSES to be really good for him. They even help teach mothers ways of taking care of their children at home,” she said.

She expected that one day Rithy would be able to understand the world around him better and would eventually pursue his studies alongside other children in public schools.

Perspectives on the future of children with autism

In five years, GSES has sent 14 autistic children to ordinary schools. Some of them are independent while some require assistance. Many will continue to study at the specialist school.

“When parents send autistic children to non-specialist schools, they usually have to pay more for special services for the child,” said Many.

She said that after the Covid-19 pandemic, a lot of parents encouraged their children to go to regular schools with ordinary children. Most parents are aware of the government’s special school in Takhmao, but are unsure whether they ought to enrol their children.

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Student doing an art project at the GSES Special Education School. GSES

“Parents who have children studying at GSES want their children to go on to study at non-special schools. This is our goal too, as much as possible,” she said.

However, Sarin pointed out that most autistic schools, both private and public, focus on the morning shift or so-called integrated courses, while Takhmao Special Education High School offers full-day education from 7am until the evening.

He said that children with autism need at least six to seven hours a day of activities such as music and art, and also physical or behavioural sessions, which require many hours of study and practice.

He told The Post that the Takhmao school has more than 200 students, with many more on the waiting list. He said parents were sometimes confused about this, because many schools nationwide provide autism education only in the morning shift.

He added that most hope when their child improves, he or she will go on to study in public schools, but warned that autistic children would face several challenges when studying in an environment which was not adapted to cater to them.

“In general, teachers in state schools have not received any training in educating the autistic. My specialist teachers and staff have very specific skills in teaching these very special children,” he said.

He added that in state schools, each teacher often taught classes of up to 30 students. If autistic children attend public schools, their learning often declines because they usually require special attention. He said Takmao Special Education High School offers classes from pre-school to grade 12. He also noted that some parents were under the impression that autism could be cured. Autism will remain autism he said, but added that the intervention of the education sector could help autistic children to progress physically and mentally.

“Most parents hope that their children will learn to be independent, and will eventually be able to live on their own or make a living. There is, however, a misunderstanding that state schools will help their children to integrate with society, and so they continue to send their kids to them,” he added.

Sarin said he was working with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport to establish base indicators to assess children’s studies. If an autistic youth is learning at a seventh or eighth grade level, the school aims to introduce certain vocational skills that will help them in the future.

Sarin explained that the state encouraged his students to study to their highest potential levels, and that the school was considering approaching donors to fund future vocational training courses.

Dr Kao Sambath of the National Paediatric Hospital in Phnom Penh is the owner of Rainbow Clinic. He established one-on-one classes at the clinic to educate children with special needs. He said that based on a 2020 study of autism in Cambodia, awareness among the general public, as well as religious leaders, remained limited.

“In my opinion, the participation of parents of autistic children in spreading information about these special children is of vital importance. The study also found that the education of autistic children was also limited,” he said.

Sambath said that there are some specialist schools in the capital, but their knowledge regarding autism remained limited. Tuition fees are also high, so it is difficult for low-income families to enrol their children.

“Parents’ participation in learning about autism and the skills needed to educate autistic children on their own is also a big part of how children develop social skills. Parents also need to learn to cope with behavioural issues, which are common in autistic children,” he added.

Along with establishing a new campus and increasing enrolment, GSES is also looking to build its human resource capacity.

“We are actively looking for new graduates who would like to gain experience and work at our new campus,” said Many.


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