Wednesday, March 10, 2010

One Voice December 2, 2009

Wednesday December 2, 2009

Growing numbers

One Voice by PANG HIN YUE

With the increasing number of children having learning difficulties in an education system not ready to cope with them, private entities are offering alternatives.

WITH the prevailing culture of measuring a student’s worth by the number of As scored in examinations, clinical psychologist Dr Alvin Ng Lai Oon is seeing more patients with learning, emotional and behavioural issues.

For students who are unable to grasp the basic writing and reading skills in an education system void of interventional therapies, the sense of failure is further heightened by the teachers’ indifference and the non-conducive home environment. Fear, anxiety and stress rob students of the joy of schooling, says Ng.

“The lack of access to therapy and failure to intervene will cause even more psychological problems, particularly for those who live in rural areas,” observes Ng, senior lecturer in clinical psychology at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Faculty of Allied Sciences.

An autistic child playing outdoors. Children with learning disabilities can be helped with the right therapy.

In an analysis spanning a period of five years from 2002-2006, Ng and his colleagues noted that 61% of the total of 792 patients who sought treatment at the UKM Health Psychology Unit clinic, comprised children and adolescents. More than 80% had diagnosis of learning disabilities, developmental disorders and behavioural problems.

In 2006, the clinic recorded the highest number of cases, whereby nearly 86% of the 268 patients were found to have learning disorders such as autism, attention deficit and dyslexia.

“The trend remains the same for the past three years,” says Ng.

The global increase in learning disabilities means that it is no longer a fringe issue. Twenty years ago, there was only one in 10,000 with a diagnosis of autism, a brain disorder that affects learning, communication and socialisation. Today, the Centre for Disease Control estimates that 1.5 million people suffer from some form of autism. That is, one in every 150 has some features of autism.

In the United States, over 500,000 individuals under the age of 21 have autism. According to the US Education Department, persons with autism account for 10%-17% of the student population.

In Britain, the scenario is similar. Based on Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre, 1% of primary school-aged children in England has been diagnosed with autism.

While there is no comprehensive data in Malaysia to ascertain the exact number of persons with learning disabilities as registration with the Social Welfare Department remains a voluntary act, it is a growing concern. Going by the United Nations’ yardstick, 10% of a population is learning disabled. If so, there should be at least 2.4 million in the country. But as of May 2008, only 229,325 persons had registered with the department.

Still, it cannot be denied that the number of learning disabled is increasing, as indicated in a paper presented by the Director of Special Education division, Bok Muk Shin, at the National Conference on Disability 2008.

Bok points out that 84% of the 1,000 special education programmes for primary schools is devoted to the learning disabled, while the remaining 16% is for the visually and hearing impaired. Similarly, 88% of the 479 special education programmes for secondary schools is allocated for the learning disabled.

The Education and Health Ministries must also make concerted efforts to address the problems, says Ng.

Despite the repeated appeals by parents to the Government to make therapies available in schools, nothing much is happening at the ground level. Thankfully, there is a now a steady increase in the number of private centres which provide alternatives to students who otherwise would had fallen through the cracks in the education system. These include Shine Child Guidance Centre and Nilai International School.

Still, parents have to persevere and take a leaf from the British experience in pushing for the cause of the learning disabled.

Through the sheer hard work of the parents there, the British Parliament passed the Bill for Autism Act on Nov 12. With it, the British government and the local authorities there are legally bound to ensure the community receives support and services.

Clearly, the Malaysian education system needs to be revamped to take into account the rising number of students with autism and other learning disorders. Procrastinating will only increase the social and economic costs in the long run. Moreover, not all Malaysians can afford private schooling for their special needs children. The onus is on the elected government to provide such a service.

> One Voice is a monthly column which serves as a platform for professionals, parents and careproviders of children with learning difficulties. Feedback on the column can be sent to For enquiries of services and support groups, call Malaysian Care ( 03-9058 2102) or Dignity & Services ( 03-7725 5569). E-mail:

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