In early 2015, mother and educator Sophie Wong set up Chicky & Olive Learning Centre, which manifested due to her own experience with raising her son, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
From the very beginning, Chicky & Olive has been committed to welcoming all pre-schoolers, whether or not they have special needs. Speaking to The Online Citizen, Ms Wong talks about the challenges of bringing up a child with special needs, and how this experience became her inspiration for Chicky & Olive.
Ms Wong’s son, Sam, is now 16-years-old. When he was younger, she sought the help of a psychologist, where she was told that her son was different from others. Ms Wong recalls feeling lost as she did not know how to help him, and ultimately decided that the best way to help was to actually be an educator.
Her first focus was on herself she now jokes.
Ms Wong also recounts a huge milestone that both she and Sam achieved at the supermarket, when her son ran up towards her through the aisles, exclaiming to her that all of the eggs had fallen. Furthermore, she remembers how Sam had told her that they would need to make sure they paid for the broken eggs. With how Sam approached her and acknowledged that he had made a mistake, Ms Wong saw the great progress that he had made.
Bit by bit, she then realised that her son could do things for himself. She gave him more things to do on his own, which in turn gave him a greater sense of self-efficacy. Gradually, she recalls how Sam grew to be more mobile and less dependant on others.
While Sam spurred Ms Wong to become and educator, she went one step further and also opened a Chicky & Olive Learning Centre, which focuses on linguistics and children with special needs. An observation of hers was that special needs children tend to have less time to play as they are always working due to the need to catch up with their peers.
She emphasises that all the things at Chicky & Olive are for children to play. Children are not restrained from any activity and are not told they are not allowed to play with any particular toy. She calls this giving them their "breathing space.”
This focus is emphasised in Chicky & Olive’s mission: To enable children everywhere not just to learn, but to play.
Traditionally, hiring the necessary therapists for a child with a learning disability can be extremely taxing on a family’s finances. One would go to a hospital for an assessment of their child, where rates are currently about $1200 to over $2000 for private hospitals, depending on the psychologist seen.
Ms Wong states that this psychometric assessment is only the beginning. After the assessment, the child will then receive the necessary help from various therapists. Occupational therapy is done when the child is still young to improve movement, coordination and even penmanship. The other major therapy is speech therapy, and following that is edu-therapy.
Ms Wong recalls paying USD120 for each session of speech therapy for her son when he was younger. Being a parent, she was willing to pay any amount that would help her child. Additionally, in primary school when school teachers could not cope with her son's behavioural problems, there was then a need to hire a shadow teacher, who is by the child through the school day. She states that this can cost up to $5000 per month, which is difficult on the average salary. This is, of course, unless one chooses public hospitals to seek help, but she states that this requires a large waiting amount of waiting for the relevant help to be available for the child.
At Chicky & Olive, class size is about six children, which Ms Wong feels is the ideal number for children with learning challenges. As a therapist, Ms Wong recounts providing therapy for a child with cerebral palsy. She states that does her best to get the child's parents to attend session together with their child, so that she can impart skills to the parents, allowing them to teach their children at home in their own time as well.
With regards to families with a special needs child coupled with financial difficulties, Ms Wong expresses her willingness to still provide the child with therapy, even pro bono if needed. “I have never rejected a child in my career. Because I have a child like that,” she says.
On 19 janurary 2016, former MP, Mr David Ong asked the Minister for Education, Mr Heng Swee Keat: on the status on achieving the vision of the new Enabling Masterplan 2012-2016 especially children with special needs and whether the Special Education (SPED) schools are able to cope with the intake of students.
Mr Heng replied that the recommendations of the 2012-2016 Enabling Masterplan (EM) cover a range of issues, including those relating to improving the quality, accessibility and affordability of Special Education (SPED).
He said, "the SPED Curriculum Framework was launched in 2012 to guide the design and delivery of curriculum in SPED schools. A well- designed curriculum will better enable SPED students to achieve quality living, learning and working outcomes. We have helped every SPED school to set up curriculum teams to translate the Curriculum Framework into quality learning experiences based on the student profile in the school. Schools have also set up Professional Learning Teams to support teacher-led curriculum innovation."
Mr Heng added that MOE has supported these teams with training and consultancy in curriculum development. Curriculum improvement is a long-term undertaking and the ministry will continue to work hand-in-hand with SPED schools to meet the students’ needs.
Speaking on the education system for special needs student, Ms Wong said, "I think Singapore have got a very good system. But yet I feel that ... I just wish that it will become a law , whereby like in US, that they will take in charge of the child in terms of OT, speech, assessment school and they work around the child."
"Children with learning disabilities are still a minority. Does it cost alot? Yes. it does. it is very costly and not all the parents can afford, so my wish is to be able to see that one day, Singapore can have this.. they take charge of the child."
According to Ms Wong, the obstacles faced parents are "to find way or ways to best prepare their special child for their future and to handle, solve, face problems that may surface in their life."
She added that it made harder with their learning challenges being not just specific but globalise as a spectrum.
Therefore what the children need is an unconventional system to educate or deal with their learnings. The current education system for special needs children is not adequately proactive and willingness to take this responsibility in educating a special child.