'You can't be in it for the money'

SINGAPORE - Even if care facilities had more room to treat adults who have autism, there are still not enough teachers and therapists willing to take on the demanding work.

'Due to the complexity of the disorder, working with these individuals can be very physically demanding,' says Ms Ng Yan Jin, one of about five teacher-therapists at the St Andrew's Day Activity Centre.

The centre, which caters to about 25 clients, sees violent tantrums daily. Teachers like Ms Ng have to bear the brunt of what can sometimes be frightening situations.

'I've been punched, hit and scratched,' says the 27-year-old, who was once picked up and thrown against the wall during a student's violent fit.

'But I have come to understand that throwing tantrums are the only way they know how to express themselves and it is not their fault because they often don't realise their own strength.'

The challenges mean that many teachers willing to work with people who have autism request to handle children instead, leaving a shortage of personnel in adult services.

Unlike other disabilities, autism varies from individual to individual, so teachers need to tailor treatments to each person, which can be demanding.

Teacher-therapists at the centre have to provide anything from basic toilet training to more complex pre-vocational skills depending on the temperament and severity of a person's condition.

'You might have one person in the group who is very lethargic so you are always having to cajole and motivate him. At the same time, there will be others you have to try to calm down and settle,' says Dr Jill Taylor, director of client services at the St Andrew's Autism Centre.

'You need to constantly analyse what is going on and it can be extremely exhausting because you cannot actually be yourself all through the day.'

Those who do work with adults also often face issues with job satisfaction.

'Because they are adults, their learning pace is slower and it can be demoralising for teachers when it feels like their charges are not making any progress,' says Dr Taylor.

Ms Ng agrees: 'It was frustrating initially when I did not see results despite the effort I was putting in. I had to learn to understand that their abilities are limited and lower my expectations.'

As a result, most in the profession stay out of passion for the job.

Ms K. Yeo, 25, a behavioural therapist at a private special education centre in Singapore, has been working in the field since she graduated from university three years ago.

'This job is definitely something you have to be passionate about. You cannot be doing it for the money,' says Ms Yeo who works exclusively with children who have autism.

Mr Melvin Maramot, the former programme coordinator and now head of therapy services at St Andrew's, has been working in special education for 11 years. He gives the reason that he stays: 'There is a dire need for service provision for youth and adults with autism.

'We need to cultivate the sensitivity and compassion towards these individuals, to help preserve their right to a meaningful life.'


This article was first published in The Straits Times.