Although she had retired four months ago, Wong Poh Wan is still very involved in the work that she started more than 20 years ago. It was at a time when little was known about autism and other forms of learning disability. But with foresight, Wong and a few like-minded individuals pioneered Malaysia's early intervention programme for special needs children.
A nurse by training, Wong was instrumental in helping Malaysian Care establish the infrastructure and develop programmes for preschoolers (age six and below) after she obtained her Masters in Special Education. Wong had hoped that by exposing learning disabled preschoolers to one-on-one therapy and learning strategies in a structured environment, they would be better equipped when they entered government schools which offered special education programmes.
Over the years, the voice of desperate parents has grown even louder. With increasing awareness following the rise in the number of children diagnosed with learning disabilities, the demand for those services has also increased sharply.
Some parents who opted for the Education Ministry's Special Education programme for their children, found it to be grossly inadequate. There have been many complaints over the years about the lack of trained teachers in handling children with special needs, which led to worsening behaviour and poor self-esteem on the children's part.
'We have had desperate parents coming to us, asking us to help their school-age children,' says Wong. So for the last eight years Malaysian Care, in partnership with a few community-based centres, has been offering a 'School Age Programme' (SAP).
'The demand for such services is overwhelming,' says Wong. 'Who could blame parents for clamouring for those spaces for their kids, despite the long waiting list, especially when they can be assured that their children will be taught with love by trained teachers who use state-of-the-art techniques?'
At Spices in Wangsa Maju, Kuala Lumpur, which started the SAP four years ago, each class has no more than 12 students to ensure that every child is given adequate attention. Students range in age from six to 11. Tasks are assigned according to students' individual abilities.
Two teachers are assigned to each group. Multimedia teaching tools make learning interesting for the students. The RM 10,000 'Smart Board' is no ordinary blackboard. It is a big, interactive touch-screen that is connected to a computer which runs educational software. Students take turns to use the board.
The interactive board is used to help children with academic rudiments and as a means to learn class rules and personal hygiene, says Wong who serves as Spices advisor. 'We use a lot of visual strategies. They are keys to help the students communicate. They are also used in managing behaviour, keeping order and ensuring the group stays together.'
By helping the students to follow the schedule visually, they can learn to express themselves better, understand what is happening and anticipate what is ahead of them. 'This lessens their anxiety and gives them a sense of control over their situation,' explains Wong.
Next to the smart board are two strips of Velcro fastened on the wall. On the left are icons