As children throughout Lao PDR return to school this month, they are joined in the classroom by a record number of children with autism spectrum disorder.
Until only quite recently, autistic children have typically been excluded from attending regular schools with other children their age. Their unusual social behaviours can be discomforting for some, and this has led many to incorrectly think of them as strange, slow, or even mentally ill. Some teachers have been known to exclude autistic children from their classrooms because they perceived them to be misbehaved and disruptive. As a result of such misconceptions, autistic children have often been stigmatised and left behind.
However, thanks to the hard work of the Association for Autism (AfA), some of these misconceptions are being addressed and increasing numbers of autistic children are now making the transition to inclusive mainstream schooling. This year, as many as 15 children have made the transition to mainstream schools in Vientiane with the help of the AfA. Most of these children attend Saphanthong Neua Primary School which has graciously agreed to work with the AfA to establish an inclusive education program for children with autism and other developmental disorders, although two children also commenced high school at Phayawat High School. This marks the first time that a child diagnosed with autism attend secondary school in Lao PDR.
Until now, inclusive education in Laos has mostly focussed on making schools accessible for children with physical disabilities. Now though, children with intellectual disabilities and developmental disorders are also being considered and accommodated.
To ease their transition into inclusive mainstream schooling, five special education teachers trained and funded by the AfA accompany the children to continue the basic education and the therapies that they have received at the Vientiane Autism Centre (VAC).
Founded in 2009 and operated by the AfA, the VAC is a special education facility in Vientiane that provides therapy and educational services to children with autism. There, students undergo a range of physical, cognitive and sensory therapies, as well as life skills training and basic education. The VAC is currently the only centre of its kind in the country, though the AfA continues to engage with the Government for the establishment of a special education program and the construction of other facilities in the Lao PDR.
“We are very encouraged by the increasing acceptance of people with autism here in Laos, both among the general population as well as from the Government”, said Ms. Viengsam Indavong, President of the Association for Autism. “People with autism are not damaged; they are simply different. They understand and interact with the world around them in their own way. It is up to us as a society to help them grow and to live full and productive lives”. Ms. Indavong, the mother of an autistic child herself, is well aware of the importance of a supportive environment. “With the right support, children with autism can succeed. The fact that a number of our children are now attending mainstream schools with other children is proof of this”.
Nine-year-old Weston is one of the children with autism now attending mainstream school with the help of the AfA. In his school uniform, Weston appears to be just like all of his classmates. He enjoys playing games and is an active participant in the classroom. He is also one of the smartest children in his class and consistently scores high grades. Last year, Weston scored the overall second highest mark of all children in Grade 3 at Saphanthong Neua Primary School.
“Weston is living proof that children with autism are not resistant to learning”, added Ms. Indavong. “They are not slow. They are not mentally ill. They are not an embarrassment who should be shunned or ignored. They need our help, and we have an obligation to give it to them”.
Though Weston is a shining example of what children with autism can achieve, he is not the only success story. The fact that there are now more autistic children attending mainstream schools than ever before is testament to the valuable work being carried out by the AfA and a clear demonstration of what can be done with the right approach and support.
“We are very proud of our collaboration with Saphanthong Neua Primary School”, said Ms. Indavong. “They have opened their classrooms and their hearts to our children. It is our sincere hope that one day in the not too distant future, more children will be able to attend and succeed at school just like Weston and the others are doing now. Although, just as our children need our support to succeed, we will need your help to achieve this goal”.
The AfA was officially registered as a non-profit association under the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2012, although they have been promoting the rights of persons with autism since 2005 when the parents and guardians of children with autism began working together to support and provide for the special needs of their children. More information about the Association, their work, and how you can help them help children with autism in Laos PDR is available online on their website at: www.laoautism.org.