Inclusive education needed for autistic children

April 19, 2023 | 06:06 pm PT
Nguyen Nam Cuong Lecturer
My son started kindergarten on a fall morning in 2019. To commemorate the day our toddler started school, my wife and I took the time to make a video after we dropped him off at kindergarten.

While we have not even finished editing the video, my wife got a call from our son's teacher informing us that the school was unable to manage our child's "complicated situation." She asked us to pick him up and bring him home.

While driving home, I couldn't help but reflect on the fact that in all my years of work as an educator, I've never rejected a single student. Then why does my kid have to be in this situation? Is it because he doesn't act like the rest of the kids?

My son is three years old and still unable to speak. To treat him, we have tried visiting numerous hospitals. Normally, after a few tests, the doctor typically explains that our child's delayed speech has been caused by something like inadequate nutrition or "uneven brain development."

But still, my wife insists that we visit more pediatric-focused psychiatrists in Ho Chi Minh City. The results have not changed. Most specialists have diagnosed him with "delayed speech" and have advised us on how to care for him and help his speech problem.

Since I was unable to enroll him in a public school, I paid a hefty sum to send him to a private institution. My child took an extra test here that the teacher made just for him. After a few games, she concluded that he must have autism.

My wife and I have been thrown into a tailspin of anxiety and worry after receiving many conflicting diagnoses for our son's condition. In need of some relief, I reached out to a professor of psychology through a mutual U.S.-based colleague. To determine his case, this American professor sent me a questionnaire and asked my child to draw random circles.

My wife and I carefully answered the questions regarding his upbringing, his daily interactions with our family, and his exposure to the outside world. After examining our responses and his drawings, the professor confirmed that he has a special form of mental disorder, a high-level form of autism on the spectrum. If he receives a good autism-specific education, he will likely integrate well into society.

But does Vietnam have a setting like that for education? We are confused and terrified. If I enroll my autistic child in a regular program, his treatment won't be effective. On the other hand, it looks like Vietnam does not have a "proper" education system for autism.

According to an announcement made by the General Statistics Office at the start of 2019, Vietnam was home to approximately one million people with autism. The rate of autism in children was estimated to be 1% of all births.

Autism accounted for 30% of children with disabilities in schools, according to education sector data from 2020. This population of children with autism and other disabilities has access to approximately 20 inclusive education development support centers and 100 public special education institutions nationwide. However, experts have deemed these institutions ineffective for autistic children.

Therefore, unlike the American professor, I lack confidence that my child will "integrate well into society" if I enroll him in these institutions. I hope he can find a safe place to develop rather than just somewhere to pass the time.

Private schools in Hanoi, HCMC and Can Tho that cater to autistic children are not cheap, but they do exist. But my research suggests that these facilities still lack the human, material, and pedagogical resources necessary to meet the unique demands of educating autistic children.

I haven't been able to concentrate on my job because I have to spend time looking for a solution for my child. I've often considered taking time off from work to stay at home to grow and cook our food as I’m afraid to take my son to restaurants where people laugh at him.

While caught in this never-ending cycle, I thought of a friend of mine who was married to a Korean man and who, like me, had a special needs child who was receiving treatment and benefiting from a preferential education policy. I learned that they use a one-on-one approach to teaching, which I admire. Tuition costs are covered by the government based on an evaluation of the child's autism spectrum disorder by trained professionals, as required by law.

So I decided to pivot and enroll in a PhD program in South Korea. I hope this will allow me to apply for a work visa as well as better educational opportunities for my son upon my completion of the program.

The United Nations designates April 2 as World Autism Awareness Day every year in an effort to encourage nations to pay more attention to the disorder. In Vietnam, ensuring that no one is left out of the educational system is something that the country has always prioritized. That's why I have faith that public schools catering to autistic students will become a reality in the near future. I intend to then bring him back home so that he may spend his formative years in the company of caring adults, and become an integral part of the group to which he feels a deep sense of attachment.

Starting a new, difficult journey toward getting our children ready for school is a must right now. And the first thing my wife and I need to do is get over our painful obsession with rejection – like that phone call from the kindergarten – and move forward.

*Nguyen Nam Cuong is a lecturer at FPT University. The opinions expressed are his own.

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