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More resources sought for autism, Down syndrome

A teacher helps an autistic child at the Centre for Child and Adolescent Mental Health in Kandal province last year.
A teacher helps an autistic child at the Centre for Child and Adolescent Mental Health in Kandal province last year. Hong Menea

More resources sought for autism, Down syndrome

The Ministry of Social Affairs has signalled it will recruit more teachers for children with autism and Down syndrome, an ambition disability advocates say would fill a dire need, but would be futile without raising teachers’ salaries.

During an event for autism and Down syndrome in Kandal province on Monday, Social Affairs Minister Vong Sauth said the ministry will open training for special needs teachers from primary school level up.

“They must get an education just like other children, even though they have a neurological condition,” Sauth said.

Yeang Bun Eang, director of local NGO Capacity Building of People with Disability in the Community Organisation, said the government needed a solid policy to make the vision a reality, especially in a culture where people with disabilities were still often restrained or chained.

“I don’t think the government will recruit more teachers in the near future. It could take 10 to 20 years,” he said. “They can’t if they have no policy on that, because no one wants to be a teacher for autism – it’s very hard work. But if the government increases the salary for them, it will be easier to find those teachers.”

Em Chan Makara, secretary-general of the Disability Action Council, encouraged educators to embrace the challenge. “We need volunteer teachers and then we will open the program to train them,” Makara said.

He said that while a teacher could typically instruct a classroom of 20 to 30 children, they might be able to teach only one or two children with neurological disorders.

While there are special classes for deaf and mute children in mainstream schools, he said there was not yet that opportunity for children with autism and Down syndrome, apart from schools run by NGOs.

Child psychiatrist Dr Jegannathan Bhoomikumar, director at Caritas’ Centre for Child and Adolescent Mental Health program (CCAMH), said 70 per cent of children with a neurodevelopmental challenge, such as autism, could be educated in mainstream classrooms.

“There is no training and there is a huge need,” he said. “The teacher does not need to know much extra – it is about accepting and including.”

He said ongoing teacher training programs for mainstream staff were key.

“It’s a growing problem. Maybe 10 years ago, we wouldn’t see autism in our centre; now, it’s about 10 [cases] per week.”

However, the pledge to expand access to education for children with disabilities was welcome news to mother Chan Sda, whose daughter could not attend school because of her autism.

“She just stays at home with me,” Sda said. “I tried to send her to school, but she could not understand the lesson.”

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