Facilities and resources for children with special needs in Malaysia have developed tremendously over the past 10 years, but we still have a long way to go. While UNESCO estimates that, on average, 10% of the population in developing countries have special needs, Malaysia’s Education Blueprint, 2013-2025 states that a mere 1% of our population has been identified as having special education needs.
This significantly low percentage when compared with UNESCO’s global average can only mean that: 1) many children with special needs in Malaysia have not been identified, or 2) their disabilities have been noticed but parents/caregivers are not aware of or are not able to undertake specialised interventions that can help. It is also likely these children are not receiving the support they require to develop and to achieve their full potential in life.
It is not surprising that the Education Blueprint goes on to say that the current waiting time for the assessment and intervention of developmental issues in children in Malaysia exceeds six months -- largely due to limited specialists such as clinical psychologists, speech therapists, and audiologists; the under-utilisation of screening tools, and a lack of standardised approaches for detection. Although the Ministry of Education says that it intends to forge strong collaborations with the Ministry of Health to fast track early identification and diagnosis, parents today probably cannot afford to wait for these plans to be realised.
Experts agree that early diagnosis of the child’s special needs is important. Children whose conditions are not identified during their early years may miss out on getting the best outcomes from intervention programmes, whose chief aim is to reduce the adverse effects of a child’s underlying disability. For example, in autism, the best results have been reported in children who started treatment as early as two years of age.
Despite all the above limitations, let us take comfort in the fact that the Malaysian government and Malaysian society as a whole are beginning to recognise that our children with special needs have equal rights with the rest of our population and cannot be overlooked. They have the right to be educated, to be gainfully employed, and to have a reasonable quality of life. We should also be encouraged by what NGOs and other entities have done in the past and the many new facilties that have recently started up to help our special children.
NGOs and Parent-initiated Facilities
Any parent would want to do the best they can for their child in providing for his/her everyday needs, in giving love and care, and in helping their child to grow physically, intellectually, socially and emotionally. However, when the child has a special need, this “best” takes on a whole new level that involves lifelong commitment, unlimited patience and unconditional love. The ultimate wish of every parent is that their special needs child would grow up to be able to take care of himself/herself -- especially when the parent is no longer there for his/her loved one.
That is why today, besides the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as NASOM and Kiwanis Down Syndrome Foundation that were set up to support children with special needs (to view some of these NGOs, you can go to Kiddy123.com and search for “Special Needs” in kiddy123.com's directory), we often find many initiatives that were spearheaded mainly or partially by the parents themselves.
These initiatives demonstrate the determination of parents to give their child the best facilities and resources possible. Among these is CADS Enhancement Centre, a non-profit organisation set up by a group of parents who pooled their resources together to set up the centre in 2003 when the elementary school where their children with special needs attended closed down due to management problems.
Another is Kairos Resources where 15 years ago, a group of concerned parents diligently searched for resources on setting up a special needs centre, supplied these resources to their church leaders, and persuaded them to take on the project, with the parents chipping in to help in the initial stages of the project.
Persatuan Kanak-Kanak Istimewa Kajang (PKIK), which was set up 20 years ago to provide services for children/persons with learning disabilities, also started out because of appeals from parents. Today, volunteers comprising parents and other individuals sit in the Management Committee and are responsible for carrying out the objectives and management of PKIK.
Private Sector Initiatives
Children with special needs in Malaysia are now more fortunate as more and more facilities and resources are available in our country for disabilities such as:
• Cognition and learning difficulties
• Behavioural, emotional and social difficulties
• Communication and interaction difficulties
• Sensory and physical difficulties
The increasing demand has initiated the setting up of specialised centres such as WQ Park, which has an Early Intervention Programme (EIP) for special needs children in their Child Development Centres in Kelana Jaya, Selangor and Taman Sri Rampai, Kuala Lumpur. Their EIP is a comprehensive multidisciplinary interventional plan involving special education teachers, occupational therapists, speech therapists and physio therapists under the supervision of a developmental paediatrician.
Among the most recent centres to be set up is CSNE by MINDSPACE in Mont Kiara, Kuala Lumpur. It practises a unique educational model for special needs children that takes a bi-directional approach to inclusive education. The children from CSNE are included into the mainstream lessons and activities of Upward Learning Centre (a preschool through high school also by MINDSPACE) while students from Upward Learning Centre can take an elective subject in which they learn about different disabilities plus engage in practical training at CSNE.
A centre that has developed over the course of time to include children with special needs is Learning Fresh. Its first centre was established in Taman Melawati, Selangor with the primary objective of imparting English language skills to primary and secondary school-goers. However, after a year, Learning Fresh found that it needed more learning programmes to meet the children’s diverse learning dispositions and therefore pre-school programmes, intervention programmes and homeschooling support were launched at its second centre at The School in Petaling Jaya. In January next year, Learning Fresh will commence its preschool and homeschooling in a new, much bigger purpose-built centre at Jalan Gasing, Petaling Jaya.
Besides these centres, there are those that solely offer therapy. One example is SI World, a well-established group offering sensory integration therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and physiotherapy to help those with special needs achieve better physical and psychological development. Conditions that are treated include autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, developmental coordination disorder (dyspraxia), language disorder, speech sound disorder, social communication disorder, specific learning disorder (dyslexia, dyscalculia), cerebral palsy, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). SI World has 11 centres throughout Malaysia: eight in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, one in Kedah and two in Sabah.
Programmes based on neuro-scientific research are also now available in Malaysia. According to the proponents, among which is BrainFit Studio in Mutiara Damansara, Petaling Jaya, neuroscience shows that the brain has millions of neurons that process information, and when neurons connect to other neurons, powerful natural networks are built, which can be trained to make the cognitive sectors of the brain more efficient. BrainFit Studio’s programmes, which it terms as brain fitness training, have been used to help children with special needs.
Another proponent of programmes based on neuroscience is Neuroscience Program Specialist in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur. Their programme, called neurofeedback training, is a type of biofeedback that uses non-invasive sensors that are placed on the scalp to measure brain waves. Using this realtime display of electroencephalography (EEG) to measure specific brain patterns, Neuroscience Program Specialist uses scientifically proven neurofeedback to engage the brain’s neuro-plasticity (its natural ability to change) to teach self-regulation to children with special needs. The training is aimed at exercising the brain’s neurons via visual and auditory cues to attain a healthy level of vitality and build neuron connections that will lead to increased attention, learning and memory.
With these developments in special needs education taking place in Malaysia, the way ahead looks good for our children. The private sector is beginning to respond to the demand for such services in Malaysia and the government has stated in the Education Blueprint that it has plans to improve inclusion programmes at the early childhood education level. It is indeed time that Malaysian society recognises that children with special needs have as much right to equal opportunities as anyone of us.