We have not done enough for our autistic children

April 13, 2021 | 11:24 pm PT
Luong Thi Ngan Teacher
On his first day attending my class, Hieu greeted his teacher with a punch to the face, leaving me with a bloody nose.

His mother frantically rushed in and tearfully apologized to me, with a look of great disappointment on her face. She then rolled up her sleeves and showed me the numerous scars covering her arms. "They're his bites. When he was one he started biting clothes, then his parents."

I was dumbfounded. For the first time I clearly felt the pain of a mother with autistic children. The class that day did not go smoothly, but I was determined to step into Hieu's world.

"Cluck, cluck, cluck," repeated the four-year-old boy during the entire lesson. He was the first student in my career of teaching autistic children. It was in 2014, when I was teaching a class for students with autism spectrum disorder in Mong Cai Town of the northern Quang Ninh Province.

For the next lesson, I took Hieu on a walk to the park where he kept repeating "cluck, cluck, cluck." Occasionally, some people stared at us and asked "Is your kid mental?" I looked at them angrily, but inside I felt more helpless rather than wanting to argue.

Whenever he went to a crowded place, Hieu would cover his ears to block sound of vehicles honking to the noise of pedestrians. I let Hieu wear earphones, and he smiled excitedly. It was his first smile at school. One day, upon entering the classroom he immediately rolled onto the ground and watched the fan's blades spin while repeating "cluck." I lied down next to him and mimicked his language. Hieu turned around and looked at me, his eyes wide open as if he had just recognized an acquaintance. I cried tears of joy.

Just like that, we started communicating using the sound "cluck." Each session I tried to communicate with him through eye contact. I did all kinds of seemingly crazy actions to draw his attention to my face. Even though he could not say any meaningful word, Hieu could still feel his teacher's concern. He was no longer wary of me, and on the contrary, even proactively held my hand and led me into the classroom.

That year I was just 24 years old and had yet to become a mother. It was Hieu that helped me learn how to love like a mother.

However, Hieu did not progress as much as his family and I had hoped. He still couldn't use any spoken language. His odd behavior didn't disappear and instead switched from one odd behavior to another, but at least they didn't get worse.

Even now, after many years away from him, in my mind I'm still haunted by the things I had been unable to do for him.

Teaching autistic children is a long, arduous journey of blood and tears. Children that develop normally need only be taught a few times before they remember. But autistic kids need hundreds of lessons. In many cases, even if the teacher repeats "this is a fish" and "fish" over and over using all kinds of methods, autistic children are still unable to say it.

This is a cruel reality anyone working in special education has encountered. Teachers like me, even with all the skills training, still constantly fail at entering the child's world.

Autism is not a disease, it's a neurodevelopmental disorder. Typical characteristics include experiencing difficulties with social communication and interaction, as well as exhibiting repetitive patterns of behavior. Even when still inside their mothers' wombs, babies already carry the seeds of the disorder, though still undetectable with modern technology.

Currently there are a number of scientifically validated teaching methods for autistic children that are popular around the world such as applied behavior analysis (ABA), floortime or augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). These methods have been proven to help autistic children encounter positive changes.

However, there is no universal method for all autistic children. It is especially important that children be diagnosed early and receive intensive intervention. Parents and other family members must regularly participate in teaching their children.

In recent years, the number of children with autism has increased. On average, one or two out of 100 newborn babies have autism. Despite this, in Vietnam, there is still no public educational institution for autistic children. While private institutions have been founded, they still have many limitations in human resources, material resources and educational methods. Some autistic children study at private centers at a cost that not all families can afford. A lot of autistic children are still left at home.

Although special education teachers have been working hard every day to help their students partially integrate into society, the reality is still very difficult. On many occasions, I have had to witness unsympathetic looks and words aimed at autistic people.

Someone once whispered in my ear, asking "Is it because their parents didn't care about them?" or "Is autism a mental illness?" My answer is always "no" and many of my subsequent explanations have become very difficult to comprehend.

Perhaps because of this reality, the United Nations picked April 2 as "World Autism Awareness Day" in an effort to increase understanding and acceptance of people with autism. With Vietnam's national education strategy, I still hope our country would build public schools specifically for autistic children soon. Currently a number of children with autism could be accepted into schools for the disabled, but most of the educational methods for disabled children in general are ineffective for autistic students. Many families however still try to send their autistic children to these schools just so they could have a place to go.

As a teacher that has taught autistic children for many years, I have always had faith in the good in them. They are affectionate, yearn to be loved, to have social interactions, and be happy. It's just that they are locked up in a "prison" in the form of their own body, which prevents them from living like other people.

Autism is not the end of a life, unless all of us insist on turning our backs on those suffering from autism.

*Luong Thi Ngan is a special education teacher. The opinions expressed are her own.

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