Module 1: Introduction
The journey begins
Have you ever been to a foreign city and felt totally overwhelmed? The local language sounds like a tongue twister, there are no street signs anywhere, and no one seems willing to stop and help. You feel disoriented and even unsafe.
For able-bodied adults, relating to persons with special needs may feel like you’ve just arrived in a foreign city. You feel disoriented, and all your usual ways of relating and interacting with others don’t seem to work when faced with someone with special needs. You wonder if it is ever possible to communicate with someone who is non-verbal, or feel safe around someone whose body language you find unusual.
What adds to the complexity is that every individual with special needs is unique, much like how cultures have vastly different norms and practices. What is acceptable in one place may be frowned upon in another. In the same way, there is no standard, one-size-fits-all template to understand an individual with special needs.
But just like how we eventually find our way around a new city using a map, paying close attention to our surroundings, and occasionally asking for help, you and I can also grow in understanding people with special needs and learn new ways of supporting them. And just like how we can have wonderful adventures and new experiences in a foreign city, relating to people with special needs can be an enriching and fulfilling process.
For the next few days, we will take a journey into the minds of children with special needs, to learn how we can better support their unique pathways through life. This is a complex issue and our understanding of many developmental conditions are still evolving. Here is a simple tool that can be a starting point in our journey to better understand and support our kids.
What does it mean to have special needs?
Children with special needs often have neurodevelopmental disorders. This means that their brains function differently, impacting their behaviour, memory and ability to learn.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
This is an umbrella term for a complex group of brain disorders. They occur in a spectrum, which means no two children with ASD will be the same. To be diagnosed with ASD, children need to exhibit at least six out of the following impairments, across three main categories, with at least two items from the social interaction category.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
According to the American Psychological Association, people with ADHD typically “have trouble getting organised, staying focused; making realistic plans and thinking before acting. They may also be unable to adapt to changing situations. ADHD has been described as a “behavioral condition that makes focusing on everyday requests and routines challenging”.
ADHD may be characterised in two broad ways - inattention or hyperactivity-impulsivity.
This is how reading might feel like to people with dyslexia. It is a language-based learning difficulty. It refers to a cluster of symptoms resulting in people having difficulties with specific language skills, particularly reading. Students with dyslexia usually experience difficulties with other language skills, such as spelling, writing, and pronouncing words.
Dyslexia is referred to as a learning disability because it can make it very difficult for a student to succeed academically in the typical instructional environment.
For persons with dyslexia, the phonological system is affected. This impacts how the brain processes sounds. Persons with dyslexia therefore have difficulty in the decoding process - how the brain identifies words. The higher order functions of comprehension are not affected.
It’s believed that famous historical figures like Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci and Picasso may have had dyslexia. Other well-known personalities with dyslexia include Richard Branson and Tom Cruise. The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew also had mild dyslexia.
Early Intervention Is Key
For children with special needs, early intervention is key. Experts believe that the early years of a child’s life have a significant long term impact on health, language, communication, cognitive and social development. Moreover, the first two years of life is a critical period because there is a burst of synaptic production in the brain, and this is the time when the brain is most likely to adapt and learn.
Given the importance of early childhood development, it is critical for children with special needs to get as much help as they can get to minimise developmental delays and remediate existing or emerging disabilities. Holistically, parents would then be better equipped to meet the needs of their children, and get the support they need in order for a better functioning of the family.
Your child can be assessed at:
• The Department of Child Development, KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital
• The Child Development Unit, National University Hospital
• Child Guidance Clinic for older school-going children
Here is where parents can get more support:
Superhero Me is a non-profit inclusive arts movement that arms children from special needs and less privileged communities with creative confidence.
Singapore Special Needs and Parents Facebook Group
This group is intended to provide a place where parents of special needs children can help and advise one other.
Hope for the Journey Facebook Group
HOJ is a physical support group for parents with special needs children. We organise talks by various speakers to educate parents on how to help the children improve, and provide emotional support to parents. HOJ hopes to share useful information and ideas that could help parents and caregivers in their journey of raising their special needs children.
Over the next few weeks, we will see the world through the eyes of 6-year old Lucas, who has ASD, and his friend, 7-year old Emily, who has ADHD.
We will journey into their minds to see how best adults around them can support them to manage their emotions, their senses, and their learning. Let’s go.