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No two the same

When it comes to educating persons with a learning disorder, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

WHEN parents first learn that their child has a learning disorder, very often they feel as though they have been thrown into the deep end.

In Lim Ang Nei’s case, when her then three-year-old son, Nicholas Mathew, was diagnosed with autism, she decided she would not allow herself to wallow in self-pity. Tough as it was, she embarked on a long journey to discover interventions and the different types of therapy that can help her son. Along the way, she discovered that she is not only helping her son but others who are in a similar situation.

Foregoing her career as a TV producer and writer, Lim spent a considerable amount of time and money to learn all about autism spectrum disorder, a neurological disorder that can in varying degrees, impede speech, learning, social behaviour and body control. Hence, the classification of persons with autism as high, moderate or low-functioning.

In the lexicon of autism, there is a continuum of therapies that parents have to familiarise themselves with and decide on for their child. They include behavioural modification, mediated learning, speech therapy, sensory integration, brain gym, play therapy, music therapy, biomedical intervention and diet intervention. Which works? As experts would argue, no two persons on the autism spectrum disorder is the same. What works for one may not work for the other.

“We owe it to our kids to at least try each therapy,” says Lim. In most cases, parents usually opt for a combination of therapy, depending on the resources they have. These various therapies are often expensive, urban-centric and not tax-deductible.

For Lim, after paying six years for speech therapy, she stopped as it did not work for Nicholas but other forms of intervention did, in particular brain gym which helps to integrate the left and right brain to enable the person to see the big picture in a coherent form. It involves modulating the senses that are not in sync as indicated when a person is hyperactive or extremely passive and is affected by light, sound, touch or smell. Poor pencil grip and illegible handwriting are also signs of sensory dysfunction.

“My son’s speech became clearer after doing various exercises under the brain gym programme,” says Lim, a mother of three. So by the time Nicholas was nine, Lim became a certified brain gym trainer herself. The certification, which took her six years to secure, enables her to conduct courses on specific exercises which work towards bringing a balance to the body system and to clear obstacles in the way so the person is able to learn without stress.

Thanks to his mother’s knowledge in gentle movements and touch points like pressing the “brain button” (the points just below the collar bone), cross crawls and other non-strenuous body movements, Nicholas, 11, is relatively calm and rarely has challenging behavioural issues like self-stimming.

“Drinking water is also vital to energise the body,” says Lim.

But Lim stresses that brain gym has to be done in tandem with other forms of therapy.

“The brain gym exercises help prepare the child for academic learning,” she adds. That’s where behavioural modification therapies like Applied Behaviour Analysis and Picture Exchange System (PECS) come into play. This entails breaking the tasks into smaller steps to suit the child, rewarding him for good behaviour and providing the means to communicate when words fail, in a structured environment.

To further validate her work in these areas, Lim is completing her diploma in Learning Disorders Management and Child Psychology. Armed with her qualifications and her teaching experience, Lim has stepped out in faith this year with her own outfit. She has four special needs students signed up for her FISH programme – an acronym for Faith Inspired School House programme.

“My aim is to serve those with special needs, to teach in such a manner that the children find it worth learning,” adds Lim.

And this is what Mary Anne Joseph, a seasoned therapist with over 20 years’ experience, aims to do at her new Mary Anne Joseph Special Needs centre in Wangsa Maju, Kuala Lumpur.

Mary Anne believes that every child, no matter how challenging their behaviour is, can be taught to behave appropriately and learn in a mainstream school environment if the right interventions are in place.

Mary Anne who has a degree in philosophy in education, specialising in special needs, considers behavioural modification therapy as the main thrust of her work. She has 40 students under her charge. Their ages range from 15 months to 24 years. Like Lim, Mary Anne maintains that behavioural modification therapy can’t be done in isolation as most autistic persons have issues impacting their health, vision and muscle tone.

For instance, to help her students use their muscles appropriately, horse-riding, swimming and other outdoor activities are a must. Likewise, students have to undergo exercises to improve their fine motor skills. She also believes in encouraging the families using her services to live and eat healthily. “That means wholesome, home-cooked food,” she stresses. To build up their social skills, therapies are done in such public places as the supermarket.

Mary Anne is convinced that when the child is primed – by addressing sensory, health and other problems – only then is he ready for learning.

Besides one-on-one therapy, Mary Anne also provides assessments, and conducts group therapy and integrated play groups. She regularly holds talks and training for teachers and goes overseas to share and learn from others. She is assisted by two therapists and she maintains that parental involvement is integral to a child’s progress.

“Which is why we insist parents must undergo training. Without their input, it will only result in failure,” she says.

While there is no denying that modifying behaviour is vital, the biggest challenge remains: is the child’s response the result of his ability to understand what is presented to him or is it a consequence of rote learning?

Soo Kui Chien, a trainer in Dr Reuven Feuerstein’s Mediated Learning Experience ( says the role of a therapist is to mediate intention to the student, to give meaning to the task that is presented to him and to be able to anticipate what appropriate feedbacks to give when he responds.

“Any child has the ability to adapt and learn new things. It depends on the quality of the interaction between the student and the mediator,” he says.

Soo maintains too that parental involvement is vital as they are the primary mediators of their children. As the child’s ability to learn increases, parents must be trained to keep up with the child’s progress, he adds.

As it is, there is no mother-of-all-fixes as far as teaching the intellectually challenged is concerned. There is still so much to learn about the brain. But in the end what really matters is having a heart to reach out.


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