SINGAPORE: More special needs children are attending school - and it is due to the children's greater access to assessment and early intervention, special needs experts told Channel NewsAsia.
Last year, there were around 18,000 students with special needs in mainstream schools, compared to approximately 11,000 in 2012, according to figures from the Ministry of Education (MOE).
There were also 5,500 special needs students in Special Education (SPED) schools in 2015, an increase of 500 compared to 2012.
Starting from 2019, all children with special needs who are above six years old and below 15 will have to attend school. Currently, children with moderate to severe special needs are exempt from compulsory education. These children will be included under the Compulsory Education Act starting from the Primary 1 registration exercise in 2018 for the 2019 cohort.
MOE has already introduced the systemic screening of primary school students for dyslexia, a learning difficulty that accounts for a large proportion of the rise in number of students with special needs in mainstream schools.
A school-based dyslexia remediation programme was also piloted in 2012.
Since last year, the Dyslexia Association of Singapore said it has seen an increasing number of students in its MOE-aided literacy programme. More parents have also reached out to them to have their children assessed.
Ms Geetha Shantha Ram, director of the association, said: “More attention is being given to children with learning difficulties and this again helps to raise awareness. It's that access to resources that has become more evident.
“All of this is indicative of the fact the community at large is willing to accept and acknowledge that there is a learning difficulty and the support - when given - will actually make a difference."
Seeking help early has also led to more cases of children being diagnosed with special needs. KK Women's and Children's Hospital has seen an increase in the number of children it has referred for placement at SPED schools over the past three years.
In 2011, KKH's Department of Child Development referred 200 children for SPED schools placement. Last year, it referred 300.
Assoc Prof Mary Daniel, head of KKH's Department of Child Development, said: "Parents are now sending their children much earlier for assessment. Pre-school teachers are picking up problems earlier. They are far more pro-active with the parents. Overall, healthcare professionals are much more aware of identifying developmental learning and behavioural problems in children."
Parents can send their children for assessment at hospitals or community-based agencies. A formal assessment will evaluate the cognitive and behavioural functions of the child and whether they can cope with school curriculum.
Professionals will then recommend the school that is best suited for the child.
"The process does not just involve us, or seeing the parent once or twice before making a decision,” said Dr Chong Shang Chee, head of National University Hospital’s Child Development Unit. Dr Chong added that a discussion should be held to decide between special or mainstream education for the child.
Support is also given to parents through seminars, and if needed, financial or emotional counselling. But ultimately, experts said that the decision on which school to send their child rests with the parent.