SINGAPORE: At first glance, the toy library at a Punggol void deck looks like any other children’s playroom.
But look closer, and there are differences. The rubber mat that lines the floor also climbs up the wall, as tall as a child, a sequined backdrop shines attractively, and there are little textured squares that look tempting to touch.
The difference is that the room is being designed with special needs children in mind. It is the hope of the volunteers that the room will lend a safe space for social interaction for children with conditions like autism and other developmental issues.
The room has yet to open to the public, with the final touches being put in.
The seed was planted when Member of Parliament for the Punggol West ward Sun Xueling spoke to parents with special needs children in her ward. When she asked the parents what activities they bring their children out for, they said they often keep their children at home and play with them in that known, safe environment.
Ms Sun was saddened to hear that, she told Channel NewsAsia. “That sparked off an idea to start a toy library where children with special needs can play together, where they can also play with children of other abilities and their parents can find mutual support,” Ms Sun said.
SETTING UP A ROOM FOR SPECIAL NEEDS CHILDREN
She enlisted the help of Ms Annette Chua, 34, who cares for two nephews who have autism, and her own son who is suspected to be on the spectrum as well.
Speaking to Channel NewsAsia, Ms Chua said that work on the room about a year ago with the help of special needs educator and behavioural therapist Nur Aisyah Churimi and co-founder of a special needs centre Yang Ling.
Toys were sourced through donations, and sorted by Ms Aisyah. She picked out toys that make sounds and have texture, which is helpful in training them to better handle their senses.
“They are very sensitive to sound, touch and light, so these sensory items can help them to learn. Once the brain can accept the different senses, they will be able to explore,” she said.
The sequined backdrop, which marks a “cosy corner” is also not to decorate the place. Instead, it's designed to calm a child who may be having a meltdown or a tantrum. It is common for children with developmental special needs like autism to lose control of their emotions when they get too excited, she explained.
“When they touch the sequins, the children experience a calming sensation,” she said, adding that the relative darkness of the area gives them their own space.
The rubber padding that comes up to the height of a child is to prevent injuries in case the children try to knock their heads on the wall. The volunteers hope that the room, where parents will accompany their children, will give parents the opportunity to bond with their children, as well as meet other parents.
They also hope that the room will be a place where other children can interact with people who are different from them.
INCREASING SUPPORT FOR PEOPLE WITH SPECIAL NEEDS, CAREGIVERS
Ms Chua said that the establishment of the room is a mark of the improving support for special needs children and their families. Notably, there are more inclusive preschools now, compared to when she started her search for help five years ago, she said.
She said that while there has been more help from the Government, what also helps is the strong community help from fellow parents and guardians in the same boat as her. She is in a WhatsApp chat group with about 70 others, and this is where they share and ask for help regarding their charges without fear of judgment or prejudice.
She also finds that people are more open to speaking about special needs, and that awareness among people has also grown.
President of the Autism Resource Centre Denise Phua agreed that things have improved over the past decade.
There was a “clear and explicit resolve” by Mr Lee Hsien Loong when he assumed the role of prime minister about 14 years ago. He committed to make Singapore an inclusive society and to put focus on the disability sector, said Ms Phua, a Member of Parliament who is known to champion the special needs cause.
Ms Phua, who also is supervisor to the Boards of Pathlight and Eden, which cater to students with autism, referred as positive tangible changes the increase in the number of early intervention centres and the number of spaces, more financial help and supervision for special schools, three job centres set up under SG Enable, an agency dedicated to enabling persons with disabilities.
GOVERNMENT EFFORTS IN THE SECTOR
The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) which oversees the sector said that there are more than 3,000 children in the Early Intervention Programme for Infants & Children (EIPIC) compared to 900 a decade ago.
In 2003, the Government started providing funding for the programme which includes therapy and educational support services to help them overcome developmental delays as far as possible.
“We are exploring an intervention model for children who have made sufficient progress in EIPIC to proceed to receive early intervention support within their mainstream preschool,” she said.
This would be different from the current EIPIC service model, which does not provide for differentiated delivery of services for children with higher or lower-than-average developmental needs.
On employment, she said to date, SG Enable and its partners have worked with more than 1,000 employers to hire persons with disabilities. MSF supports private sector employers who hire persons with disabilities, the spokesperson added.
“While we recognise that not all persons with disabilities will be able to participate in or secure employment opportunities in the open market, we are working with stakeholders to explore and create alternative employment models and inclusive business models for those who are work-capable,” she said.
SECTOR COULD DO WITH IMPROVEMENTS
Despite the improvements, Ms Phua said more can be done. She outlined areas that are lacking and need improvement.
One is the support model in mainstream schools.
There is a need to study and review the existing support model, adequacy level and the optimal support level for students with special needs within primary schools, secondary schools and institutions of higher learning.
When it comes to adults with disabilities, Ms Phua also noted that while much attention has been provided through the SkillsFuture Movement and the Industry Transformation Maps for the typical adult Singaporean, not enough has been done for those with special needs.
People with special needs are not being employed enough in jobs that suit them, she added. She also said that the responsibility cannot be the MSF’s alone.
“It is now time to consider if there is a need to legislate so employers bear some responsibility in recruiting and developing staff with disabilities,” she said.
She gave the example of Australian cities that have set public service disability employment targets as part of an economic participation plan for persons with disabilities. She acknowledged however that such quota schemes, when not properly implemented, can backfire and result in cheating or just lip service.
Still, she said reformed schemes that allow a quota to be met not just by direct hire, but by working and encouraging an employer to contract with, for example, a sheltered workshop of the disabled for supplies or services is a possible solution.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SUITABLE EMPLOYMENT
Ms Koh Soek Ying, 52, who has a 22-year-old son with autism, agreed that more employment help is needed for people with special needs, especially when they are not considered "high-functioning" but are still employable, given more support and training.
Her son, for example, is cognitively non-verbal, which means that while he is able to think, he is not able to articulate his thoughts.
This could result in him having meltdowns, and behaving like a child even though he is an adult. He may also walk off from any situation when he gets too overwhelmed- his way of coping.
Getting employers and colleagues to understand his behaviour may not be easy, she said.
She also said the assessment that was used on her son at a special education school to gauge if he was ready for vocational training may not be suitable, given that it was originally developed for lower-skilled workers who want to upgrade themselves. A more customised assessment tool can be developed specifically for this purpose, she suggested.
She now employs her son at her social enterprise, Mustard Tree, and conducts workshops for people with special needs, in order to teach them skills like craft-making.
“They learn slower. The environment and support system may not be adequate. There’s a need to redefine employment when it comes to those with special needs,” she said.