Parents' predicament

PENANG - Eugene Cheong and his wife Jo-Anne de Vries were unable to find a school to enrol their son just two months before the start of the new schoolyear.

It was a stressful period for them as their son Ethan had been turned down by four private schools in Penang as he was a special needs child with autism spectrum disorder.

They approached schools and were forthright about their son's condition because they believed that in order for Ethan to have a fair education, they had to work together with the teachers, shared the couple.

What they did not expect was the negative reactions from the schools the moment they ticked "special needs" in the form.

"One school director related an incident involving an autistic child who had behavioural issues and was disruptive in class. Another principal practically turned us down without even seeing our son with the excuse that 'our teachers cannot handle these type of kids'," said de Vries.

They were very disappointed that the schools rejected Ethan without properly assessing him.

"The school authorities already have a pre-conceived idea of what children with special needs are like. There tends to be an emphasis on academic excellence versus a more holistic approach to education and informal learning," said Cheong.

Disruptive beahviour, the additional attention and the inability to achieve academic excellence were among the reasons cited by the schools, although the couple had been told by their son's child development psychologists and therapists that he would benefit greatly if he were in a mainstream school environment.

Diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when he was around two, Ethan was mild-mannered and had no major behavioural problems.

His parents were confident that he would fit in well into the mainstream school setting.

As parents, the couple had already accepted the reality that Ethan was not going to be at the top of the class but they still wanted him to be in a class where he could be with other normal children. Left with no school willing to admit Ethan, Cheong and de Vries were at their wit's end and they even considered moving to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore to seek better learning opportunities for Ethan.

Fortunately, they were successful in their appeal with the board of governors of the first school they applied to.

"The school was initially our first choice and the only one which allowed Ethan to sit for an assessment test.

"The school adminstrator was willing to enrol Ethan with the condition that we hire a teacher aide to assist Ethan in the classroom," said de Vries.

Now in Year Four, Ethan has settled well in school.

"The teachers in the school have been fantastic, none of them have been trained in special education but they made the extra effort to read up on teaching children with autism spectrum disorder," said de Vries.

Looking back on the struggle to get Ethan in a mainstream school, Cheong and de Vries were glad that they made the best decision for Ethan.

"Parents who have children with special needs must understand that mainstream school is only suitable for children who have a mild disability. Children with a more severe condition may not benefit from mainstream schools, it might even be detrimental for them" said de Vries.

She said that she empathised with parents who were not "open" about disclosing their child's condition to the school as they were afraid of rejection.

Still, de Vries said that it was best for parents to be forthright to school authorities about their child's disability.

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