“The first lesson I was taught when learning to be a special needs teacher was how to be a special friend of the children,” said Kim Ngan, saigonchildren’s Early Intervention specialist.
Ngan graduated from the Department of Psychology at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities and has been an early intervention specialist for children with autism for four years. Every day, alongside parents, she reviews the previous homework and guides them along each new goal for the week. Her job is to give clear instructions to parents by modelling and making adjustments when practising, allowing the parents to better support the intervention from home.
Having eight years of experience working with autistic children, initiating with an internship at the Special Education Department of Hanoi Pedagogical University, Hien is saigonchildren’s other early intervention specialist. She shared: “Teaching children with autism will be different from teaching children in an academic setting. Sometimes, we have to teach all of a child’s instincts. For example how to sit on a chair, how to play with a toy, how to use the toilet, how to serve themselves like using a spoon to eat, or how to drink water from a cup, etc.” The most important thing is to help the children integrate well and become independent.
Sometimes teaching a child with autism can encounter certain challenges. One of those is when they have limited hobbies, making it difficult to attract them to participate and interact. In class, some children can get lost and sit in the corner or find it challenging to actively join others. “Sometimes the kids need the teacher’s prompt to help them focus. Or sometimes they can have explosions in emotion and behaviour because they cannot fully express what they want to say due to poor language skills and difficulty in controlling their behaviour,” Ngan said.
In order to become an Early Intervention specialist for children with autism and support them on this long journey, the most important qualities are patience and understanding. When teaching these children teachers need to act slowly, speak slowly, and create appropriate the support for each child. There also needs to be tolerance and understanding towards the parents, working with them to agree on the expected outcome to avoid failing expectations and burnout.
Thanks to this love and patience there have been great results and heart-warming stories. Ngan happily recounted the progress of her six-year-old student S (renamed): “At Thang Long School, every day after class we teachers must clean up the carpet floor coverings. S was in the latest class on the schedule of the day and was waiting at the gate for a motorbike taxi with his grandmother to go home. S saw us remove the carpet several times and on that day he came up and asked ‘Miss Ngan, do you take it off?’, and I said ‘Yes, right, we have to tidy up the carpet.’ And then I saw him ran into the classroom and helped me remove the carpet. Although the boy could not describe his intention with words like ‘Teacher, I will help you,’ I knew that S began to share and care more about his surroundings.”
As for Hien, she recalled a story from her time teaching an Indian kid whilst working in Hanoi. “It is already difficult to teach Vietnamese children in our mother tongue, but even more so to teach foreign kids with my limited English skills. When the family approached us the kid had very little verbal skills, and the other social skills were also just basic, but I wanted to help the parents as well as to give myself a challenge. Fortunately, I had a good manager to guide me, and the kid had great potential. After only two months there had been great improvement in behaviour, manner and prerequisite skills. One afternoon while waiting for his mother to pick him up I brought a book to read with him, then he uttered the first word as he pointed at the book whilst saying ‘duck’. Both his mother and I were extremely happy, especially the mother she kept repeating the word ‘duck’ over and over again.”
Because the children have difficulty communicating and expressing emotion, sometimes they express their appreciation through actions. Some children come for a hug, others give a smile. The teachers have a special sensitivity to the children’s gestures and eye contact and take pleasure just seeing them smile and being comfortable.
The specialists understand that the children have individual personalities which can mean there are specific difficulties and special characteristics. Sometimes the children’s behaviour can be outside of social norms, and they do not understand that it is inappropriate. For example, if they don’t greet someone it’s not neccessarily because they do not like to, but most of the time because they are preoccupied with something else. Or at some point they may cry for hours and cannot calm down, this may be because they want to express their emotions but they do not have the skills. “Children with autism need a lot of respect and empathy from family, school, and society. They need support to learn more skills and integrate better.” Ngan also expressed her ambition for a safe playground and exclusive support for autistic children, so they can enjoy and explore the world.
The intervention and raising of children with autism is not only the responsibility of the teachers but also requires assistance from parents and society. Hien hoped raising the parents’ awareness and knowledge about autism will enable them to be consistent in teaching these special children. Within society, people need to accept and respect the child’s differences and remove any stigma about autistic children. In addition, there need to be more opportunities for children to participate and integrate.
All children are special. Although they have difficulties and challenges that they struggle to express, these dedicated teachers always understand, love, and support them to improve. On this Vietnamese Teachers’ Day, let us give our gratitude to these special teachers – teachers of autistic children.