The boon of teletherapy

Nur Nuhaa,7 months old infant with Down Syndrome.Her mother, Nur Liana is being coached by Hazel Joy, a Physiotherapist from Kiwanis Down Syndrome Foundation-National Centre through an onlineteletherapy. They are working on how to stimulate Nuhaa to reach and grab and how she can bring her hands together in midline.

ALTHOUGH the movement control order (MCO) has caused much disruption, it did spur rapid digital transformation across sectors including special education, and increased parental involvement.

Unicef Malaysia Child Protection and Disability specialist Zoe Gan said it was often thought that teletherapy – a remote therapy method that uses technology to help therapists and clients communicate – wouldn’t be able to provide the same experience for children with disabilities, and that having face-to-face sessions would be best.

Gan, however, said the pandemic forced early intervention centres to adapt to the current pandemic while parents got to experience the benefits of teletherapy for the first time.

“For children in remote areas, this meant doing away with having to travel into the city to meet with a therapist. All that’s needed is a phone and data plan.

“Innovative ways of overcoming the challenges include the introduction of data bundles and partnerships with clinics.”

Teletherapy, she added, also meant that parents were more hands-on with their children’s therapy so that they could continue the lessons with their child regularly and consistently at home.

Society of the Blind Malaysia (SBM) chairman Dr Ahmad Shamsuri Muhamad, who is also a National Association of Special Education (NASE) exco member, said many students with learning disabilities have been suffering in silence due to the unsatisfactory standard of special education accessibility in the country.

Noting that there hasn’t been enough effective communication among relevant parties regarding learning standard operating procedures (SOPs) for such children pre and post MCO, he said the special education sector is not inclusive and greatly lacks flexibility and accessibility in terms of materials and services.

“There are different categories of children with special needs. Difficulties of each vary and require special accommodation. Flexibility is very important.

“Reading materials such as braille books for the visually impaired, smartphone or laptop for online learning, good Internet connection for video conferencing and sign language interpreter for hearing impaired children are needed.”

He added that empathy was key to understanding and providing better support for children with learning disabilities.

Since the implementation of the MCO, there has been increased meltdowns and tantrums especially among children on the autism spectrum due to changes in their daily routine which caused emotional disturbance.

Additionally, tactile learning (learning by touch) has been discontinued and it is a challenge for children with special needs to understand the lesson. Inaccessibility to online learning make it difficult for them to fully participate in e-activities.

Dr Ahmad Shamsuri said the MCO has, however, enabled parents to learn teaching methods from special education teachers via online platforms.

It has also helped them better understand their children.

Malaysian Care, a non-profit NGO which focuses on serving the poor and needy as well as empowering communities, found that the lower income and single parent households with special needs children were hardest hit.

Besides financial constraints, parents also had to deal with the stress and pressure that came with managing a special needs child, some of whom needed space to release their pent up energy, its community development coordinator Rozanne Yong said.

“Beyond the basic needs, many children with learning disabilities require extra intervention such as early intervention programmes or therapy, which have all been halted due to the MCO.

“Some children, especially those who are on the autism spectrum or have Down Syndrome, regressed in their learning. They were also thrown off from their daily routine which led to different behavioural patterns and emotional meltdowns,” explained Yong.

These situations, he said, created a cycle that increased pressure and stress among parents.

The most common questions the organisation received from parents were on how to teach their children, reduce meltdowns, balance their job and household responsibilities while managing children who demands attention 24/7 a day. Access to resources and support was another concern.

“However, some of the positive effects of the MCO include the increased bonding time between parents and children. Parents began to notice the little details about their children.

“Due to constraints of MCO, some parents were forced to be innovative with materials they have at home to encourage learning in the house.”

Providing therapy support and necessary facilities such as an online learning kit to underprivileged families can help special education move forward, said Yong, adding that the government could partner and fund NGOs to conduct telehealth services and subsidise child care services for parents of children with special needs.

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