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In the small garden outside the Happy Learning Assessment and Training Centre, a five-year-old child was playing with a bag of toys. He was by himself, with no accompanying adult in sight. Staff members at the centre recognised him as one of the children under the centre’s care, one who showed symptoms of autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They called his parents, and found out about the problems the family was facing.

“We believe the family is a critical part of any programme caring for children with special educational needs. Parents play a vital role,” said Winnie Chan Wan-ling, a clinical psychologist and supervisor of rehabilitation services at the Kwun Tong Methodist Social Service, which runs the centre. “Once the adults are OK, the children get better.”

 

The Kwun Tong Methodist Social Service’s Happy Learning Assessment and Training Centre is a one-stop centre that serves children with special educational needs, and their parents. It opened in October 2011.
 

Drop-in Area / Reception

 

 

The unique challenge of catering to the needs of low-income groups

 

“Kwun Tong is one of the three poorest regions in Hong Kong. Housing is substandard and people have access to little information. Many of those who live here are new immigrants, and don’t yet know how to access community resources. They don’t know, for example, that they should take their children to regular health checks. Those on low incomes must work hard to survive, so working parents leave their children in the care of the grandparents. When the children seem slow to learn, the parents think it’s because the old folks don’t know how to take care of the children. So they delay sending the children for an assessment [for learning difficulties].”

This was Winnie Chan’s observation when she was asked about the difficulties of providing training for young children. The story of the five-year-old boy at the playground left an especially deep impression on her.

The boy’s mother left the family when he was still very young. His father met someone new, then went to live with the new girlfriend on the mainland. The job of caring for the boy fell on his grandmother. Handling a boy with symptoms of autism and ADHD was difficult for an old woman with failing vision.

“Our colleagues who handle training for such children need to take a rest after two sessions. What more a grandmother of over 70 years old? It’s dangerous in fact,” Winnie Chan said.

“The other day, the boy told us that he came to the centre on the MTR by himself, from his home in Tseung Kwan O. He has a good memory, so he remembers the way. And he is so small that he can easily slide under the gantry to take the train for free. When we called his aunt, his aunt said the family nearly called the police.”
 

“When the mother is well, the child will do well too”

 

While it is important to provide training for the children, it is just as important to understand their family background. As a clinical psychologist, Winnie Chan sees the need for service providers to be sensitive to their clients’ family situations. “We need to sit down and listen well to find out their problems. For example, if the mother has been the one to take the child to the centre, and we find someone else, say, an elderly person, doing it one week, we’d do well to ask, ‘How come the mother didn’t come today?’”

She said parental involvement holds the key to the children’s development. Parents must build a healthy self-image for themselves, and take on the job of caring for the child with a positive mind-set. In reality, many parents of children with special needs also suffer from emotional problems themselves. This is true especially of mothers who must watch the child 24 hours a day. Some even display signs of depression. In such cases, the centre will refer the parent to a psychologist.

“Quite simply, when the mother is well, the child will do well too,” Winnie Chan said. This is why, aside from providing assessment and training for the children, a big part of the centre’s work involves paying attention to the needs of the parents. This is done in three ways: conducting home-based training for them, providing emotional support, and offering counselling when needed.
 

Home-based training

 

 

Offering support for the family

 

“Every case is unique to us, and the social worker plays a critical role. He or she is the first point of contact for parents who want to get in touch with the centre. The social worker is also the person parents will call when they feel troubled,” Winnie Chan said.

“We believe it is important to invest time and effort in the parents’ well-being, not just focus on training the children. This is necessary especially when the children are very young. Take speech therapy. Are the parents of a child undergoing therapy helping the child to practise at home? If not, we need to ask, ‘Why not?’ It’s not enough to teach parents the skills of doing something. The social worker has to work with the parents and try to make them see there really is a way out. This way, intervention is the most effective.”

The Happy Learning centre charges a fee for its training for young children, and hopes to be self-sufficient in future. For now, funds from Fu Tak Iam Foundation ensure that those who can’t afford to pay the full fee can still benefit from the service: fees are subsidised or even waived for families who earn 75 per cent or less of the median household income. It has been three years since the programme was first rolled out. The plan was to serve 100 children a year; as it turned out, more than 130 cases were accepted in just the first three months.

Between 2011 and 2015, the centre provided assessment for 680 children and teenagers, as well as training for 966 children between the ages of two and 12. The training comes in different forms. This includes clinical psychologists offering support to the family and helping children learn to recognise and manage their emotion; music therapists helping children to change their negative emotions and improve their ability to express themselves using their bodies; play therapists reaching out to the children through play and helping them improve their cognition, emotional management and sociability; speech therapists analysing the obstacles to a child’s language development and providing useful exercises to overcome those obstacles. Others who provide support include physiotherapists, occupational therapists, social workers, inclusive education teachers, and writing and reading therapists.
 

Sensory Playroom
Sensory Integration (SI) training
Speech Therapy

 

 

At the same time, the parents themselves also learn all kinds of skills, including how to handle their emotions better. Winnie Chan said the centre hopes to help ease the bottleneck in public services for children with special educational needs. “In 2014, more than 7,000 children were on the waiting list for a place in the government’s Early Education and Training Centre. Children with special educational needs must wait to be assessed, wait to see the doctor, wait to access the service… Years pass and, before we know it, we’ve missed the “golden age” of training for children, which is six years and below.”

For these children, early childhood education is only the first challenge they face. Other more difficult challenges lie ahead.
 

A challenge awaits the secondary school leaver

 

In 2015, the Happy Learning Assessment and Training Centre expanded its services to provide help targeted at a problem many young people with learning difficulties face: getting a job.

“Many children with special educational needs who study in mainstream schools drop out in the third or fourth year of secondary school, because they simply cannot follow the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) curriculum. Parents also don’t expect their children to do well in DSE exams, so those on low incomes would rather not have to pay to register them for the exam,” Winnie Chan said.

“We provide training for these youth to improve their chances of getting a job. Generally, those with dyslexia have the best job prospects, because they can manage interpersonal relationships. Since the introduction of legislation for a minimum wage, a lot of low-paying jobs, such as washing dishes in a restaurant, have become more widely available. Anyone who wants to work and is not afraid of hard work can find a job. But more worrying are those diagnosed with autism, Asperger syndrome or ADHD. They have the most difficulties finding a job, and need the most help.”

One problem is these young people have an “invisible problem”. They look no different from regular young people. In addition, unlike those who go to special needs schools, government help does not extend to job assistance to school leavers. Most of them attend mainstream schools. Yet the career planning talks and workshops the government promotes in schools do not cater to their needs. Due to their lack of social skills, they stay away from most youth activities. Although the district-based social service centres are open to them, as many as 90 per cent of the people who go to these centres have mental disabilities, Winnie Chan estimated. Simply put, these are two different groups of young people, with different needs, she said. “At the end of the day, none of the available social services caters to these school leavers.”
 

The more we see, the wider our horizons

 

The Happy Learning centre provides district-based vocational training. This includes taking the young people it serves on an orientation tour of different jobs, so they could learn the do’s and don’ts in a work environment. The centre also arranges internships for them: with the help of a job counsellor, these young people spend 30 hours working as an intern. “It’s not enough to learn about the job through a lecture,” Winnie Chan said. They need to find out for themselves through experience. For instance, many of them think only girls and women work at a florist, so when we take them to the Flower Market, they could see for themselves that, in fact, many boys and men also work there.”
 

Vocational training
The youth under placement were leading a group of children for outdoor visit

 

 

Job placements are a key component of the programme. The job counsellor would first arrange for the young people to take a job with one of the six centres run by the Kwun Tong Methodist Social Service, such as the youth centre, a centre for the elderly or the food bank. “They may be tasked with answering the phone or some data entry work. Or they could be asked to support a weekend activity, helping to prepare the food, take the temperatures of children in the centre, or keep order in class. In the home for the elderly, they would learn to interact with the residents, try to understand how they feel and what they need, and even learn to be more patient. These jobs give the young people plenty of opportunities to learn – they can learn a lot even from something as simple as going to the market to buy food for an afternoon tea for 30 children.”

Winnie Chan said: “When those diagnosed with autism are put in a position of caring for others, they slowly learn to control their own temper. They also learn that work comes with some rules of behaviour, and that they need to manage their time on a job, for instance, clocking in when they get to work. All these experiences prepare them for a future job.”

If all goes well, they would be placed in a real work environment, such as at a hotel, café, office, a hair salon or a beauty salon.

Winnie Chan said finding a job appropriate for each one’s ability and strengths is very important. “We can’t expect businesses and employers to give us jobs as a kind of charity; there must be some give and take. This means we must let the employers know that these young people are keen to learn, can do the job and are an asset to the company, even though they may be slower in picking things up and need someone to watch them.”

Once, a hotel manager who hired someone diagnosed with autism was so impressed by the young person’s punctuality and politeness that he changed his mind about the programme. “He told us he at first thought offering the job was more like providing a social welfare, but he began to see that the young person hired really treasured the opportunity to work, and our colleagues at the centre were conscientious in following up the case,” Winnie Chan said. “At the end of the day, what we most want is for employers to give them a chance.”
 

A lesson for the centre

 

The job placement programme has had its problems.

“We once arranged for a student who liked to cook to work at a hotel restaurant. His mental faculties were almost no different from the average young person’s. He was a good boy, usually good at following orders. But, one day, some family-related problem made him so emotional that he ended up crying and wielding a knife at work, while saying he wanted to quit. Our colleague immediately went to the hotel to sort things out,” Winnie Chan said.

“We found out later that on top of the family problem, he was also upset by something his restaurant co-worker said, perhaps to taunt him. What happens at work are of course outside our control, but we realised that perhaps he wasn’t ready to work at a place where he would have easy access to knives, and perhaps it would be safer all round to keep him with us. Perhaps, in future, he could work at the hotel again, but not now.”

This incident illustrates the challenges that autistic youth face on a job. “Their understanding of things around them are usually very simple and straightforward, so they find the more complex interpersonal relationships at the workplace difficult to understand. If a person calls you a headache while smiling, is that person angry with you or not? They can’t read accurately their boss’s expressions, and cannot understand how to mix with their colleagues, so they are often ostracised.” The job counsellor helps them to learn the intricacies of human relationships through role play.

With support from the Fu Tak Iam Foundation, the centre has offered job training to 25 students in the six months since funding began. More than half of them have found a job, with the help of the job counsellor. “We need to follow up,” Winnie Chan said. “The target is to follow each case for between six months and a year.”
 

In need of government support

 

Hong Kong needs to offer its young people with special needs a path towards a job and integration with society. But few social services provide such help. Winnie Chan hopes the government can see and address this gap in our welfare services. “This is a bigger need, and a bigger challenge, than early childhood services,” she said.

“These young people have been rejected so many times at job interviews that some of them have lost hope. We feel the same sometimes. They have been through all kinds of training, but if our society will not accept someone who’s just a little bit slower, what kind of future will they have?

“The situation might improve if the government were willing to provide financial support for businesses to hire these young people. In fact, I think we should provide job training in every district in Hong Kong for these young people with special educational needs.”
 

Text by : So Mei Chi    Translated by : Chen Zhijun

In the small garden outside the Happy Learning Assessment and Training Centre, a five-year-old child was playing with a bag of toys. He was by himself, with no accompanying adult in sight. Staff members at the centre recognised him as one of the children under the centre’s care, one who showed symptoms of autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They called his parents, and found out about the problems the family was facing.

“We believe the family is a critical part of any programme caring for children with special educational needs. Parents play a vital role,” said Winnie Chan Wan-ling, a clinical psychologist and supervisor of rehabilitation services at the Kwun Tong Methodist Social Service, which runs the centre. “Once the adults are OK, the children get better.”

 

The Kwun Tong Methodist Social Service’s Happy Learning Assessment and Training Centre is a one-stop centre that serves children with special educational needs, and their parents. It opened in October 2011.
 

Drop-in Area / Reception

 

 

The unique challenge of catering to the needs of low-income groups

 

“Kwun Tong is one of the three poorest regions in Hong Kong. Housing is substandard and people have access to little information. Many of those who live here are new immigrants, and don’t yet know how to access community resources. They don’t know, for example, that they should take their children to regular health checks. Those on low incomes must work hard to survive, so working parents leave their children in the care of the grandparents. When the children seem slow to learn, the parents think it’s because the old folks don’t know how to take care of the children. So they delay sending the children for an assessment [for learning difficulties].”

This was Winnie Chan’s observation when she was asked about the difficulties of providing training for young children. The story of the five-year-old boy at the playground left an especially deep impression on her.

The boy’s mother left the family when he was still very young. His father met someone new, then went to live with the new girlfriend on the mainland. The job of caring for the boy fell on his grandmother. Handling a boy with symptoms of autism and ADHD was difficult for an old woman with failing vision.

“Our colleagues who handle training for such children need to take a rest after two sessions. What more a grandmother of over 70 years old? It’s dangerous in fact,” Winnie Chan said.

“The other day, the boy told us that he came to the centre on the MTR by himself, from his home in Tseung Kwan O. He has a good memory, so he remembers the way. And he is so small that he can easily slide under the gantry to take the train for free. When we called his aunt, his aunt said the family nearly called the police.”
 

“When the mother is well, the child will do well too”

 

While it is important to provide training for the children, it is just as important to understand their family background. As a clinical psychologist, Winnie Chan sees the need for service providers to be sensitive to their clients’ family situations. “We need to sit down and listen well to find out their problems. For example, if the mother has been the one to take the child to the centre, and we find someone else, say, an elderly person, doing it one week, we’d do well to ask, ‘How come the mother didn’t come today?’”

She said parental involvement holds the key to the children’s development. Parents must build a healthy self-image for themselves, and take on the job of caring for the child with a positive mind-set. In reality, many parents of children with special needs also suffer from emotional problems themselves. This is true especially of mothers who must watch the child 24 hours a day. Some even display signs of depression. In such cases, the centre will refer the parent to a psychologist.

“Quite simply, when the mother is well, the child will do well too,” Winnie Chan said. This is why, aside from providing assessment and training for the children, a big part of the centre’s work involves paying attention to the needs of the parents. This is done in three ways: conducting home-based training for them, providing emotional support, and offering counselling when needed.
 

Home-based training

 

 

Offering support for the family

 

“Every case is unique to us, and the social worker plays a critical role. He or she is the first point of contact for parents who want to get in touch with the centre. The social worker is also the person parents will call when they feel troubled,” Winnie Chan said.

“We believe it is important to invest time and effort in the parents’ well-being, not just focus on training the children. This is necessary especially when the children are very young. Take speech therapy. Are the parents of a child undergoing therapy helping the child to practise at home? If not, we need to ask, ‘Why not?’ It’s not enough to teach parents the skills of doing something. The social worker has to work with the parents and try to make them see there really is a way out. This way, intervention is the most effective.”

The Happy Learning centre charges a fee for its training for young children, and hopes to be self-sufficient in future. For now, funds from Fu Tak Iam Foundation ensure that those who can’t afford to pay the full fee can still benefit from the service: fees are subsidised or even waived for families who earn 75 per cent or less of the median household income. It has been three years since the programme was first rolled out. The plan was to serve 100 children a year; as it turned out, more than 130 cases were accepted in just the first three months.

Between 2011 and 2015, the centre provided assessment for 680 children and teenagers, as well as training for 966 children between the ages of two and 12. The training comes in different forms. This includes clinical psychologists offering support to the family and helping children learn to recognise and manage their emotion; music therapists helping children to change their negative emotions and improve their ability to express themselves using their bodies; play therapists reaching out to the children through play and helping them improve their cognition, emotional management and sociability; speech therapists analysing the obstacles to a child’s language development and providing useful exercises to overcome those obstacles. Others who provide support include physiotherapists, occupational therapists, social workers, inclusive education teachers, and writing and reading therapists.
 

Sensory Playroom
Sensory Integration (SI) training
Speech Therapy

 

 

At the same time, the parents themselves also learn all kinds of skills, including how to handle their emotions better. Winnie Chan said the centre hopes to help ease the bottleneck in public services for children with special educational needs. “In 2014, more than 7,000 children were on the waiting list for a place in the government’s Early Education and Training Centre. Children with special educational needs must wait to be assessed, wait to see the doctor, wait to access the service… Years pass and, before we know it, we’ve missed the “golden age” of training for children, which is six years and below.”

For these children, early childhood education is only the first challenge they face. Other more difficult challenges lie ahead.
 

A challenge awaits the secondary school leaver

 

In 2015, the Happy Learning Assessment and Training Centre expanded its services to provide help targeted at a problem many young people with learning difficulties face: getting a job.

“Many children with special educational needs who study in mainstream schools drop out in the third or fourth year of secondary school, because they simply cannot follow the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) curriculum. Parents also don’t expect their children to do well in DSE exams, so those on low incomes would rather not have to pay to register them for the exam,” Winnie Chan said.

“We provide training for these youth to improve their chances of getting a job. Generally, those with dyslexia have the best job prospects, because they can manage interpersonal relationships. Since the introduction of legislation for a minimum wage, a lot of low-paying jobs, such as washing dishes in a restaurant, have become more widely available. Anyone who wants to work and is not afraid of hard work can find a job. But more worrying are those diagnosed with autism, Asperger syndrome or ADHD. They have the most difficulties finding a job, and need the most help.”

One problem is these young people have an “invisible problem”. They look no different from regular young people. In addition, unlike those who go to special needs schools, government help does not extend to job assistance to school leavers. Most of them attend mainstream schools. Yet the career planning talks and workshops the government promotes in schools do not cater to their needs. Due to their lack of social skills, they stay away from most youth activities. Although the district-based social service centres are open to them, as many as 90 per cent of the people who go to these centres have mental disabilities, Winnie Chan estimated. Simply put, these are two different groups of young people, with different needs, she said. “At the end of the day, none of the available social services caters to these school leavers.”
 

The more we see, the wider our horizons

 

The Happy Learning centre provides district-based vocational training. This includes taking the young people it serves on an orientation tour of different jobs, so they could learn the do’s and don’ts in a work environment. The centre also arranges internships for them: with the help of a job counsellor, these young people spend 30 hours working as an intern. “It’s not enough to learn about the job through a lecture,” Winnie Chan said. They need to find out for themselves through experience. For instance, many of them think only girls and women work at a florist, so when we take them to the Flower Market, they could see for themselves that, in fact, many boys and men also work there.”
 

Vocational training
The youth under placement were leading a group of children for outdoor visit

Job placements are a key component of the programme. The job counsellor would first arrange for the young people to take a job with one of the six centres run by the Kwun Tong Methodist Social Service, such as the youth centre, a centre for the elderly or the food bank. “They may be tasked with answering the phone or some data entry work. Or they could be asked to support a weekend activity, helping to prepare the food, take the temperatures of children in the centre, or keep order in class. In the home for the elderly, they would learn to interact with the residents, try to understand how they feel and what they need, and even learn to be more patient. These jobs give the young people plenty of opportunities to learn – they can learn a lot even from something as simple as going to the market to buy food for an afternoon tea for 30 children.”

Winnie Chan said: “When those diagnosed with autism are put in a position of caring for others, they slowly learn to control their own temper. They also learn that work comes with some rules of behaviour, and that they need to manage their time on a job, for instance, clocking in when they get to work. All these experiences prepare them for a future job.”

If all goes well, they would be placed in a real work environment, such as at a hotel, café, office, a hair salon or a beauty salon.

Winnie Chan said finding a job appropriate for each one’s ability and strengths is very important. “We can’t expect businesses and employers to give us jobs as a kind of charity; there must be some give and take. This means we must let the employers know that these young people are keen to learn, can do the job and are an asset to the company, even though they may be slower in picking things up and need someone to watch them.”

Once, a hotel manager who hired someone diagnosed with autism was so impressed by the young person’s punctuality and politeness that he changed his mind about the programme. “He told us he at first thought offering the job was more like providing a social welfare, but he began to see that the young person hired really treasured the opportunity to work, and our colleagues at the centre were conscientious in following up the case,” Winnie Chan said. “At the end of the day, what we most want is for employers to give them a chance.”
 

A lesson for the centre

 

The job placement programme has had its problems.

“We once arranged for a student who liked to cook to work at a hotel restaurant. His mental faculties were almost no different from the average young person’s. He was a good boy, usually good at following orders. But, one day, some family-related problem made him so emotional that he ended up crying and wielding a knife at work, while saying he wanted to quit. Our colleague immediately went to the hotel to sort things out,” Winnie Chan said.

“We found out later that on top of the family problem, he was also upset by something his restaurant co-worker said, perhaps to taunt him. What happens at work are of course outside our control, but we realised that perhaps he wasn’t ready to work at a place where he would have easy access to knives, and perhaps it would be safer all round to keep him with us. Perhaps, in future, he could work at the hotel again, but not now.”

This incident illustrates the challenges that autistic youth face on a job. “Their understanding of things around them are usually very simple and straightforward, so they find the more complex interpersonal relationships at the workplace difficult to understand. If a person calls you a headache while smiling, is that person angry with you or not? They can’t read accurately their boss’s expressions, and cannot understand how to mix with their colleagues, so they are often ostracised.” The job counsellor helps them to learn the intricacies of human relationships through role play.

With support from the Fu Tak Iam Foundation, the centre has offered job training to 25 students in the six months since funding began. More than half of them have found a job, with the help of the job counsellor. “We need to follow up,” Winnie Chan said. “The target is to follow each case for between six months and a year.”
 

In need of government support

 

Hong Kong needs to offer its young people with special needs a path towards a job and integration with society. But few social services provide such help. Winnie Chan hopes the government can see and address this gap in our welfare services. “This is a bigger need, and a bigger challenge, than early childhood services,” she said.

“These young people have been rejected so many times at job interviews that some of them have lost hope. We feel the same sometimes. They have been through all kinds of training, but if our society will not accept someone who’s just a little bit slower, what kind of future will they have?

“The situation might improve if the government were willing to provide financial support for businesses to hire these young people. In fact, I think we should provide job training in every district in Hong Kong for these young people with special educational needs.”
 

Text by : So Mei Chi    Translated by : Chen Zhijun