SINGAPORE: Donning a white-collared shirt and light-green bermudas, 16-year-old Sherman Ho may seem like a typical student at the NUS High School of Mathematics and Science.
But the fourth-year pupil is a little different. He has Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism, and this means that he can see things in a slightly different way. He often asks questions that take his classmates by surprise.
“Sherman asks a lot of intriguing questions, like when we’re all frantically copying whatever the teacher is saying, he just suddenly comes up with this new idea and we’re all like ‘oh my goodness, we’re all so stumped’ and we all get to learn more as a class,” said Sherman’s classmate, Raelene Chong.
His active participation in class has also won praise from his English teacher, Mr Selva Sundram.
“His classroom discussions are quite insightful because he’s well-read. For topics that he’s passionate about, he actually talks about them quite a bit and students are quite engaged by his responses too,” said Mr Selva.
Sherman has been described by his classmates and teachers as inquisitive and often participates actively in class. (Photo: Vanessa Lim)
Sherman's place in a mainstream school might have seemed unlikely 10 years ago. He would often have "meltdowns" because he could not express himself, and sometimes it could be so bad that he would bang his head against the wall or a cabinet.
With that, his mother, Ms Alice Goh enrolled him in Pathlight School, a special school for children with autism, when he reached primary one.
“The classes in Pathlight are much smaller and they always have a support teacher, which is very important. The main teacher will teach and the second teacher will support whoever breaks down,” said the 45-year-old sales executive.
Sherman progressed well in Pathlight, but that did not stop Ms Goh from harbouring hopes of transferring him to a mainstream school.
“As a mother, you want the best for the child. Although you know Pathlight is the right school for him, you still wish that your child can be normal again,” said Ms Goh, adding that she would check with Sherman’s doctor and therapists every year to see if he was suitable to be placed in a mainstream school.
When Sherman was 12, he was finally given the green light to move on to a mainstream school. With a strong interest in mathematics and science, he set his mind on NUS High. His hard work eventually paid off as he topped his cohort with a score of 273 at the Primary School Leaving Examination in 2012 and moved on to his chosen school.
Sherman is one of the 18,000 students (about four per cent of the total student population) with mild special educational needs in mainstream schools, said a Ministry of Education (MOE) spokesperson, adding that students with dyslexia form the largest group.
The numbers have been increasing over the years. In 2013, there were about 13,000 students with mild special educational needs in mainstream schools, or about 2.7 per cent of the total school population.
GREATER AWARENESS OF SPECIAL NEEDS CITED AS REASON FOR INCREASE: MOE
The rise could be attributed to several factors, an MOE spokesperson told Channel NewsAsia.
These include greater availability of information on special educational needs and access to assessment by professionals, as well as more students being identified with dyslexia through a screening process for primary two pupils. Parents are also more willing to have their children assessed for possible special needs and are willing to share with school staff information about their children’s condition.
More efforts have also been made to provide support for children with mild learning disabilities at the pre-school level. The recent announcement on the expansion of the Development Support Programme to 30 more pre-schools would allow more children with learning difficulties to benefit from therapy intervention and be better prepared for mainstream primary school.
ALLIED EDUCATORS TO SUPPORT STUDENTS WITH LEARNING DIFFICULTIES
With an increase in the number of special needs students in mainstream school, the Government has also put in place several initiatives to support students with learning difficulties. About 80 secondary schools and all primary schools have at least one trained allied educator specialises in providing learning and behavioural support to students with mild special educational needs.
“MOE also trains a core group of teachers in every primary and secondary school to equip them with a deeper understanding and knowledge of special needs and the necessary skills to … meet the specific needs of special educational needs students,” said the MOE spokesperson.
At NUS High, a briefing session will be held for subject teachers at the beginning of each school year to inform them about incoming students with special needs and their backgrounds.
"With all this information, the teachers would have a better understanding of them and would be able to attend to these kids if the need arises,” said Sherman’s Year One form teacher Mrs Joyce Tan.
To help Ms Goh keep track of Sherman’s progress, the school also prepared a weekly report card for her that includes his academic performance and social behaviour.
“Every teacher will make a brief comment, about three to four sentences, weekly. After reading the report, his mother would work with the teachers, as well as his external counsellor, on some strategies,” Mrs Tan added.
MAINSTREAMING ENCOURAGES INCLUSION
Having students with special needs as classmates encourages inclusion, said Ms Denise Phua, president of the Autism Resource Centre and co-founder of Pathlight School. She added that this would provide a learning experience for other students in the class.
“A typical student will learn that there are really people who are different from us. I would think that it's a wonderful place where you can see microcosm of society – people of different abilities, different strengths and different backgrounds coming together,” Ms Phua said.
When Sherman first moved to his new school, the form teacher informed the class about Sherman’s condition, but for classmate Theo Rajan, Sherman is just like anyone else.
“He seemed a bit too hyper but not way out of hand. I didn’t find anything totally out of the norm. It’s very fun working with him because he has a lot of creative ideas,” said Theo.
The transition has so far been smooth for Sherman, and he has made new friends and enjoys hanging out with them.
“I like socialising with Theo and Raelene, because it’s not difficult to broach subjects to them, doing lab work with them does wonders for socialisation. I’ve learned social interaction from them,” he said.
Sherman playing card games with Theo and Raelene during recess time. (Photo: Vanessa Lim)
It is not just about hanging out with friends. Sherman, who hopes to read computer science at the National University of Singapore, is also making the most out of his time in school.
“There are some things you won’t know how to describe until you reach higher learning. NUS High allows me to start thinking deeply about certain topics and what I’ve learned allows me to broaden my understanding around the world,” said Sherman.
For that, Ms Goh is glad that she made the right choice of placing Sherman in a mainstream school.
"We weren’t 100 per cent sure that he was ready to move on. But because going to NUS High is actually his dream, we were more like being supportive of what he wants to do. I’m very glad that he has settled in quite nicely,” she said.