At THS, the week of April 12 to 16 was dedicated to increasing the awareness about Autism Spectrum Disorder and its accompanying message of understanding and inclusion at school. This year, we were fortunate to be able to celebrate autism awareness across our three campuses on site.
As leaders of inclusive education in Hong Kong, THS and The Children's Institute of Hong Kong (TCI) work closely daily to achieve excellence in the provision of services for our students on the spectrum. We are proud to be part of a community that lives and breathes inclusion.
This year, we focused on two things - ‘The Facts’ and ‘The Experience’. It’s important to raise awareness through understanding the facts about the condition as well as experiencing how it is to be someone with ASD. Many myths and misconceptions about ASD persist today all around the world and this lack of understanding can make it difficult for people on the autism spectrum to have their condition recognised and consequently, to access the support they need. Misconceptions can also lead to many people with ASD feeling isolated and alone.
Throughout my career working in the field of Applied Behaviour Analysis which is a therapy based on the science of learning and behaviour, I have worked with many children diagnosed with ASD. Individuals with ASD are neurodiverse and learn differently hence, good ABA programs for autism are not one-size-fits-all. Each program should be written specifically to meet the needs of the individual learner taking into consideration the learner’s interests, needs, preferences and family background.
Having the appropriate setting and opportunities to engage with other students in varied social settings is equally important. Providing meaningful opportunities for inclusion in a mainstream educational setting has always been a challenge for many students with ASD. While students on the autism spectrum are increasingly being placed in general education “inclusion” settings for the purpose of social integration, support is crucial. For successful integration to happen, positive experiences must take place and there is need for support throughout the organisation for individual differences. In my experience, some students with ASD, their main need is to be in a setting of inclusion. Finding the right fit and having the individualized education plan that works for the student are often the most important pieces to the puzzle. At the same time, it is also important that inclusion benefits both the integrating ASD students as well as the mainstream students.
Focusing on ‘The Facts’, we held discussions with students about the common characteristics or traits of ASD as well as dispelled myths. Students then engaged in various fun activities to reinforce the ASD facts they had just learned. Grades 1 to 3 students recognized some facts about ASD and each decorated their own puzzle piece. If you look closely at the picture here, you will see interesting facts written by students on the puzzles. Students discussed the facts learned as a group, coloured in their own jigsaw piece and enjoyed themselves. The puzzle pieces were then fitted together to create a complete poster. Check out the colourful puzzle pieces created by the Grade 1s. (Photo on the right in the page above). It’s amazing to see how we can raise awareness throughout the school community regardless of the diversity in backgrounds and cultures.
Many people with ASD have difficulty processing everyday sensory information. Under ‘The Experience’, students came to understand through a variety of exercises how sensory input can be distressing for their classmates on the spectrum. Students were subject to distracting and even alarming loud noises and flashing lights. Through these activities, students increased their understanding of the sensory issues many people with autism have. Students filled out a crossword puzzle with random characters (Photo on the right). Through this exercise, they get a glimpse of how difficult it might be for someone with ASD to complete their work. The activities were designed to be engaging and informative at the same time, and it was heartening to see students not only participating keenly but also showing curiosity and understanding. Some students observed that having sensory issues were more difficult than they initially thought and now they understand their peers with ASD better. They demonstrated keen interest in learning more about the condition and to understand ways in which they can help their peers with ASD. We were pleased by the outcome achieved and look forward to providing more such opportunities to reinforce the learning.
With the success of Autism Awareness Week, the whole school community capped the end of a meaningful week by wearing blue which has become a sign of showing understanding and solidarity for autism acceptance.