You may be aware that there are different types of special needs, such as autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Down syndrome and others. Special needs can be classified into four categories, namely physical (e.g. epilepsy), developmental (e.g. Down syndrome and autism), behavioural/emotional (e.g. ADHD) and sensory impaired (e.g. visually or hearing impaired). What are the challenges children with special needs encounter and how can we help them lead better lives and integrate into society? Read on to find out more.
Autism is defined as a developmental disability that persists through a person’s life, which affects their ability in making sense of things around them as well as communicating with other people. Common symptoms usually include intense reactions to sounds, smells and lights, delayed language development and a preference to be alone.
Children with autism spectrum disorder encounter certain communication barriers that pose difficulties in interacting with neurotypical individuals. Communication barriers they encounter include: difficulty understanding nonverbal communications, interpreting statements literally, as well as managing only one thought and talking about one thing at a time.
With a better understanding of the challenges these children encounter, we can adapt our communication styles using the following tips:
- Slow down our conversations to their speed so that they can process what we say
- Compliment them or reward their good behaviors often as a form of positive reinforcement
- Involve physical activity during interaction to prolong their attention spans
- Show your affection and love for them, but be careful to respect their personal space
- Avoid feeling rejected by their unfavorable responses and ignore bad behavior that is aimed at seeking attention
2. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is a medical condition where those afflicted suffer from differences in brain development that affect attention and self-control. Children with ADHD may find it much harder to wait, listen and follow directions, when compared to their peers. They may also be impulsive, rush through things and make careless mistakes. Due to their behavioral traits, we need to interact with them in the following ways:
- Identify cues that show if the child is paying attention to you, as they are not able to maintain prolonged eye contact
- Provide instructions in a stepwise manner
- Give them more visual stimulation during communication, such as using illustrations to show what you want the child to do
- If you want the child to get something done, put your instructions across in the form of questions so that they feel they are in control of making choices. For example, if you would like the child to eat fruits, you may ask the child to choose from the fruit he likes, instead of commanding him to eat.
- Remain soft and calm while speaking to them
- Communicate to them your expectations clearly and reward their positive behaviors
3. Down Syndrome
Down syndrome occurs when there is an extra copy of chromosome 21 in an embryo. This causes complications in the course of development and brings about certain physical characteristics that are common among affected children, such as flat noses, low muscle tone and small ears. Most of them will also display mild to moderate challenges with their abilities in thinking and reasoning.
Down syndrome is a lifelong condition, which differs in each individual. Some may grow to eventually live independently, while others may need regular supervision from their caregivers. With early detection, treatment and therapy, children suffering from Down syndrome can slowly thrive in society without any significant problems. To help them blend in with the society, here's how we can interact with them on a day-to-day basis:
- Help them adhere to their daily routines by using illustrations and giving clear signals for them to transit from one daily activity to another
- Avoid giving statements with negative connotations when they make mistakes i.e. instead of saying "You're wrong", say "You can do this better" instead
- Avoid giving out too many instructions at one go and encourage them to repeat what you have mentioned to ensure they have understood your instructions
- When possible, allow them to make their own choices and solve problems independently
- Involve them in your daily tasks e.g. simple housework and engage in recreational activities together
4. Cerebral Palsy
Cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder that happens when a growing child sustains a brain injury, or suffers abnormal brain development. It can happen before, during or immediately after birth. Typical symptoms include a wide range of loss in body movement, muscle control and coordination, as well as basic motor skills.
If the brain damage is permanent, the side effects of cerebral palsy can be managed by a combination of medications, therapies and assistive technology. Common therapies involved in treatment include speech therapy, occupational therapy and physiotherapy. You may work with the therapists in improving the child's condition by helping her pronounce words with correct facial techniques, as well as practice sign language and breathing techniques. While the child is learning how to communicate, give words of encouragement to serve as positive reinforcement.
Epilepsy stems off from neurological disorders that affect the central nervous system, which hampers the electric signals that the nerve cells use to control the body’s functions, senses and thoughts. This disorder can be brought upon by a severe head injury, meningitis, or genetics passed on by either parent.
Children with epilepsy are prone to seizures, which can include uncontrollable jerking movements, loss of consciousness or even unexplainable fear and anxiety. This can be controlled with a mixture of anti-epileptic drugs, dieting and surgery (if necessary). There may even be a chance for some children to naturally outgrow their epilepsy by their teenage years. As children and teenagers with epilepsy may face discrimination by others, it is important that we lend them our support and address the stigma through the following measures:
- Address the misconceptions of epilepsy, such as sharing with others that symptoms can be scientifically explained and successful treatment is possible
- Let them know that you are happy to have them confide in you about their fears and concerns
- Encourage them to speak with counselors who can help them focus on their strengths and strengthen their self-esteem
- Encourage them to take part in hobbies like sports and volunteer work
- Reach out to support groups who can provide advice and instill a sense of inclusion
- Speak to the authorities such as the teacher or principal if they are discriminated in school
With proper intervention and support, children with special needs can make our lives more vibrant and foster a more inclusive community. To help them receive the required support in the long run, CaregiverAsia has launched the Extraordinary Care Program that ensures continued long-term therapy for children with integrated therapy service providers and medical escorting service with a trained caregiver, in the unfortunate event that their parents or guardians are no longer able to care for them. Do you know of a friend caring for a special needs child? Find out more about the Extraordinary Care Program below to understand how it can benefit them!