When did you come to Vietnam?
I first met Hien in 2009, Marianne was already there with VSO (Volunteer Services Overseas). She’s a special need teacher, and she needed a speech therapist with specialist knowledge in autism to come and join her for this three-month project.
Nicola’s decision to train as a Speech and Language Therapist centred around the fact that she has a younger brother with Down’s Syndrome. She, therefore, has direct personal experience of the effect which speech and language problems can have on children and their families.
How did you start at the OWL Centre?
In 2011 I started the first OWL Centre in England, it has grown across the whole of Britain and we have about 200 therapists in our team: speech therapists, teachers, and dieticians for feeding, eating and drinking problems. We also have psychologists to deal with; emotional difficulties, anxiety, stress, school refusal, children who experience child abuse, and lots of psychotherapists and family counsellors.
How did you start supporting saigonchildren?
Our link with saigonchildren started properly in 2012 because I came again with Marianne for a project in Nha Trang for autism. Between 2012 and 2015, therapists were sent to Nha Trang to support two special needs schools. Since 2016, the therapists have been sent to HCMC. The project in HCMC is more official and important because many practitioners come for training from the whole of Vietnam. Working together with saigonchildren is very important for providing good therapy across the whole of Vietnam. The aim is not to take over but to try to build up the confidence of the teachers in Vietnam so they can carry out the strategies and the intervention themselves.
Can you share a memorable experience from your work with saigonchildren?
The things that I notice mainly is you only need to change very small things to have a big impact on that child’s development. For instance, there was a boy who was expected to be able to talk while he needed many pre-language skills such as the ability to focus, joint attention (where adult and child focus on the same thing at the same time), play skill, and social awareness. Those things are so important before the language comes in. Therefore, the first year involved coming to meet the family and changing the focus to early communication skills which are not talking. By the next year, the child was ready to work on the talking, but sometimes it is difficult for the family when you say: don’t focus on words, focus on preverbal skills, and the language will come after that. With that family day in day out, you can’t see the progress, but when you come back the next year you really can. There are such a lovely warm welcome and a real sense of achievement after every course. Because everybody has embraced it with all that they have. They embraced the course and listen to every word of knowledge that we shared. It’s a very lovely and rewarding experience for us. We feel like what we are sharing is so valuable to the teachers in Vietnam. It’s an amazing privilege that the therapists have, to come to Vietnam to share their skills.
What is your vision for autism education in Vietnam?
Autism everywhere in the world is changing all the time. New interventions are always coming. It’s never enough information really. By helping the people in Vietnam to know what autism intervention to focus on, they will be able to have a big impact on the children’s development and hopefully enable them to achieve more as they grow and learn. I saw a worrying statistic just recently in Great Britain saying something like 80% of people who have been diagnosed with autism in the UK don’t have a job. We are all focusing on the stage of early intervention and we hope that this momentum will continue as the child grows older. But it’s so difficult for secondary school age when intervention has less of an impact, and the therapy isn’t quite readily available. And then people struggle with independence later on. But we hope that if more people in Vietnam have a better understanding of autism, especially in the early year and right the way through their childhood, then they can become independent as they grow up.
Do you have any advice on the special need teachers in Vietnam?
Always learning! You never know enough about autism so always keep learning. And always try and make your intervention individualized to that specific child. So take a strategy and take what you need from that strategy for that individual child and implement it. You don’t have to use intervention in its entirety, just take what you need. Every child is an individual, so you have to keep looking at their specific needs.
Tell us about your book “Small Talk”
When I wrote the book, my daughter was very young, and it was quite easy because I could follow her language development and use my speech and language knowledge and merge them all together to make a book. And I’m not necessarily good at writing but I just wrote how I would say it to a family, I didn’t use high tech words, or I didn’t try to be pretentious at all. That message seems to have worked quite well.
Information about Small Talk