By PANG HIN YUE
Jacquelyn Ang, 45, is a mum-on-a-mission. It has been 20 years since her then two-year-old son was diagnosed with autism. But there has been no let up in Ang’s pursuit to learn, apply and share her experiences with fellow parents in Singapore and Malaysia.
As one of the committee members of the non-profit service provider, Autism Resource Centre (ARC) in Singapore, she has been passionately advocating the University Of North Carolina’s TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children) programme.
This is evident in the set-up of the office where her son works and in schools where she gives her input. They are structured to provide order and predictability with visuals placed strategically to help individuals with autism do their tasks sequentially, timely and independently.
“The goal is to reduce anxiety which is a major issue with individuals with autism, stemming from their sensory problems and difficulties in communication,” explained Ang at her recent workshop, “From Home to Job Site,” at Oasis Place, a one-stop centre for the learning disabled in Kuala Lumpur.
Just as one can’t force a square peg in a round hole, proponents of TEACCH believe that individuals with autism should not be subjected to situations that set them up for failure. Instead, they should be placed in a purpose-driven environment for learning and working that is based on their abilities and characteristics.
Ang says her strapping 20-year-old son has gained independence using TEACCH programme over the years.
At home, her six-footer son uses a step-by-step visual guide and a timer to prepare his own meal.
Ang’s son folds and packs boxes for his father’s manufacturing plant. His workstation is set up in a quiet corner as that helps him to stay calm and focused. The weighing scale is clearly marked with the exact amount he needs to pack. That way, there is no room for error as he knows how much he needs to pack. Just like do-it-yourself manual to assemble furniture, he folds the boxes with ease because he has already mastered the steps. Once done, he is equally deft packing the boxes away.
“Our goal is to present information in a way persons with autism understand and not how we understand it,” says Ang who is pursuing her Masters in Autism studies at the University of Kent.
As many individuals with autism are visual learners, visual strategies are strongly featured in TEACCH programme, adds the mother of four. So TEACCH programme provides step-by-step information with “what”, “when”, “how” and “where” the task is to be performed.
As the individuals gain mastery, the very work they do can be the motivating factor. When asked how he would like to be rewarded for a job well done, Ang’s son said, “Go to office.”
The beauty of TEACCH programme, enthuses Ang, is that it can be applied in any setting. It is equally applicable to high and low functioning individuals with autism. The key is to provide structure, so tasks can be done meaningfully.
The challenge is how does one know the inclinations of the individuals with autism? With the emergence of high functioning individuals with autism speaking up and writing about their experiences, there is hope yet to better understand autism which has been described as a social communication disorder.
One such notable person is Dr Temple Grandin. As a scientist with autism, Grandin is naturally fascinated with the brain, the very organ that had impacted her senses, cognition and social skills.
Based on her studies of brain scans, including her own and her voluminous researches on neurosciences, she says it is evident the autistic brain is wired differently.
Despite the anomalies in the brain affecting the ways in which persons with autism function and behave, Grandin urges parents and caregivers not to despair.
Instead, they should focus on developing their strengths. In her latest book aptly entitled, The Autistic Brain, Grandin the professor of animal science at Colorado State University, says that persons with autism generally fall into three categories: picture thinker, pattern thinker and word-fact thinker.
Picture thinkers, she says, are the ones who like hands-on activities such as building with Legos, painting, cooking, woodworking or sewing. Pattern thinkers think about the ways the parts of the object fit together and as such as they are inclined towards math and music.
Word-fact thinkers include those who are fixated with movie dialogues, historical facts and statistics that are of their peculiar interest. While drawing may not be their cup of tea, Grandin says encouraging them to pursue writing is one way to engage them with the world.
She says the categorisations are to help parents plan ahead for their autistic children to ensure they are employable when they reach adulthood.
“I tell parents that by the time their kids are 11 or 12, the parents should be thinking about what the kids are going to do when they grow up. Parents should start considering the possibilities so that they have time to help prepare the child,” says Ang.
Identifying and nurturing special needs children’s strengths is only part of the picture. Helping them to develop functional life skills is just as pertinent, this includes taking care of their personal hygiene skills, doing household chores, cleaning and observing safety rules.
As the number of persons diagnosed with autism continues to rise, the pressure to provide services and job training continues to mount.
The latest data shows that one out of 68 has autism, an increase of more than 100% in one decade.
According to American advocacy organisation, Autism Speaks, 84% of adults with autism live with their parents and nearly half of the 25-years old with autism are unemployed.
So, while there may be more high functioning autistic students being admitted to colleges and universities, it does not necessary mean more are being absorbed into the workforce.
TEACCH director of Supported Employment, Michael Chapman who gave a presentation on, “Guiding Career Choices for Persons with Autism” at ARC in Singapore last month, says the low rate of employment is because many entered university without equipping themselves with everyday living skills.
“Well before going to university, daily living skills must be taught. It is never too early to start,” says Chapman who has 26 years of experience in helping individuals with autism find jobs under the TEACCH programme.
Domestic chores such as cleaning, cooking and doing the laundry may be mundane but they are crucial in helping individuals with autism transition to college and workplace, he says.
Newly released study by Autism Speaks says that the mastery of self-care skills has proven to be more important than language, intellectual ability or the severity of autism symptoms when it comes to maintaining employment and achieving life satisfaction.
Ang, Chapman and the other advocates of TEACCH methods must be smiling to themselves that finally there is a research done that validates their work.