IT is every parent’s wish to see his or her child grow up to be independent of others, and it is no different for those with special needs children.
National Autism Society of Malaysia (NASOM) advisor and former chairperson Feilina Feisol understands the desire only too well – her son, 24, has severe autism.
When asked the way forward for special education in Malaysia, the National Council for Persons with Disabilities (PWD) council member proposed that the Education Ministry come up with a roadmap for every child “from cradle to grave”.
“I would like to have a proper blueprint or roadmap for every child with every disability, no matter the degree.
“Every parent with a special needs child will wonder what will happen to that child after the parent is gone.
“To be independent is one thing but what happens after the child grows old.
“Will there be an old folks’ home to take care of the child?” she said at a recent webinar organised by Taylor’s University School of Education in conjunction with World Autism Awareness Day 2021.
Among the recommendations put forth at the event included improving curriculum relevance and flexibility, securing employment opportunities, and incorporating therapy programmes as part of the training of special education teachers.
Moderating the discussion was Taylor’s University School of Education senior research fellow Prof Dr Sopia Md Yassin.
A relevant, flexible curriculum
Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI) senior lecturer Dr Grace Annammal Piragasam at the varsity’s Faculty of Human Development’s Special Education Department commended the effort taken by the ministry’s Special Education Division to restructure the curriculum under the new education syllabus known as the Standard-Based Curriculum for Secondary Schools (KSSM).
“It is a diverse curriculum that caters for students with moderate and lower functional abilities, and the curriculum structure in schools is very well-planned.
“It is meant to direct students towards real-life situations and inclusion in community, which means they will be employed and will be able to manage themselves, ” she said.
However, Grace, who has specialised in special education for 22 years, recommended improving the relevance of the curriculum as the world is heading towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution (IR4.0).
“The division has to consider how higher order thinking skills (HOTS), and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) can be inculcated.
“Special needs individuals have to be competent as they compete with typical individuals for employment, ” she said.
The ministry’s Special Education Division former director Prof Datuk Dr Yasmin Hussain, who is currently City University Faculty of Education and Liberal Studies dean, shared that there are plans in the pipeline for the varsity to include students with special needs in higher education.
“We have culinary and performing arts courses coming up.
“We will discuss the enrolment criteria, so that students with a Level 2 or 3 Malaysian Skills Certificate (SKM) will be able to enrol, ” she said.
Discussions are also underway with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) on how its curriculum can be revised to cater for deaf and blind students, she added.
“We have deaf students who are weak at writing in Bahasa Malaysia. They are often not accepted because of their language capabilities.
“We have to discuss further how they can gain admission with support from the university.”
Work placement is one of the ways in which those with special needs can gain employment.
Prof Yasmin said under the ministry’s special education vocational schools, students are placed in industry where they work with other members of society.
“We have more schools and programmes coming up, ” she shared.
Cooperation from industry is crucial to help the students, she added, noting that in Miri, Sarawak, some Down’s Syndrome children are trained to weigh and pack salt, and get paid for it.
For individuals with severe autism, the only place they can go for work is “sheltered workshops” run by non-governmental organisations and the government, said Feilina.
“It is a classroom kind of environment where they go in for specific jobs. For example, in Alor Star, Kedah, they go in there to pack coffee bags, ” she shared.
She added that NASOM has collaborated with a fast food chain to provide autistic individuals with the job of packing items such as chilli sauce and spoons in takeaway bags.
“It depends on the child’s autism severity, and whether the child has had any intervention, ” she said.
Moving with the times, Taylor’s University School of Education head Dr Logendra Stanley Ponniah suggested that future sheltered workshops be tech-centred.
“Maybe we could have a stable of e-gamers in a sheltered environment eight hours a day practising gaming, and joining international gaming competitions, rather than following the old school way of packing.
“We should move from physical jobs to those that are more intellectual and kinaesthetic, ” he said.
Adding to this, Feilina pointed out that 30% of international gamers have autism spectrum disorder and never went to school.
“They earn a living every month just playing games and streaming them live, ” she said.
Another avenue for parents to help carve a career path for their special needs children is investing in music education.
Vyner Music and Training School academic studies director Sharon Vyner did just that and now, her 27-year-old musician son, who is on the autism spectrum, teaches the drums.
“I have two other special needs students who teach the piano and music theory, ” she said.
Sharon believes in the power of music to engage children with special needs.
“Music involves a lot of actions. Children are fascinated with that. They like sensory activities like hitting the drums and moving their hands.
“I always include percussion in the lessons at my school. It develops fine and gross motor skills, and the left and right brain, ” she said, adding that autistic children have no difficulty following instructions with music.
Therapy training programmes
Through its Special Education Department’s clinical education model, UPSI is taking steps to address the shortage of facilities and specialists for therapy services in Malaysia. “We are implementing the model in our special education core structure programme.
“We have two groups of lecturers – one focusing on theories, concepts and the practical side, and the other therapy training. This is a plus point, ” said Grace.
She added that the varsity has a one-stop centre which is equipped with laboratories addressing various types of therapy services.
“The centre is set up in hopes that we produce special education programme graduates who not only have the ability to teach, but also the skills to conduct sensory, occupational and speech therapies, ” she said.
According to Grace, UPSI is one the universities in the country that produce graduates in compliance with employment needs identified by the ministry.
“The intake of students comes directly from the Human Resources Ministry.
“They send the students to us and our work is to teach them so that the novice teachers have both advantages – teaching special needs students and implementing therapy in schools, ” she said.
Efforts are also undertaken by her department to restructure its special education courses.
“We are introducing some minor courses in relation to technical and vocational education and training (TVET), and technology and vocational training, so our undergraduates have the relevant training, ” she added.