According to the National Autism Society of Malaysia (NASOM), about 9,000 children are born with autism in Malaysia. Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a neurodevelopmental disorder found among children as young as 18 months old.
As the name suggests, it has a wide spectrum of possible manifestations including social, communication, and behaviour. While the awareness of autism has been growing in Malaysia, there is still a need for a change in mindset to recognise that they are just different and not disabled, to provide better help.
To explore how autistic children communicate in special education classrooms from a linguistic perspective, Dr. Yeo Siang Lee and Dr. Ang Pei Soo from the Faculty of Languages and Linguistics started a project entitled Enhancing Effective Communication Strategies Among Children with Autism in July 2022.
With funding from UMCares, they collaborated with the IDEAS Autism Centre located in Rawang, Selangor to conduct the study.
Due to the study being ethnographic, the researchers spent long hours and days collecting empirical data from teachers and autistic children in the forms of speech and visual recordings, and observation notes.
They have made multiple visits to the centre to further understand each child and their communicative patterns.
“If you just put a camera there, it doesn’t work because you’ve got to be at the scene to understand what is going on and capture that moment-to-moment in situ” said Dr. Ang.
From analysing early observations, the researchers have found that younger autistic children tend to rely more on nonverbal communication, while older ones demonstrate greater communicative ability due to them having received longer therapy and intervention.
But that is not to say younger children are lacking in communicative competence. In fact, in an entertaining recount, the researchers shared that a boy tried to prompt them to sing the song ‘Baby Shark’ by repeatedly and persistently hand-gesturing a shark biting down on its teeth. Lost at first, the teachers soon understood, and everyone started singing the song much to the boy’s delight. Although preliminary, this finding supports that autistic children are fully capable of engaging in communication and conveying meaningful messages based on their unique way of processing speech and thought.
The researchers have shared the early findings with involved teachers and parents, who have been incredibly supportive throughout the project. By addressing it from a linguistic and humanities perspective, they urge for a more accommodating approach and explore how society can more effectively support autistic children.
“What we’re trying to tell them is that, although he cannot do this or that, look, there are things that he’s doing that you do not know [about]” urged Dr. Yeo.
They further advocated that not being able to conform to mainstream lifestyles does not spell the end of the world for autistic children. At this stage, these valuable insights have shown potential in aiding efforts of special education teachers and caretakers towards more effective communication with autistic children.
However, there have also been multiple challenges throughout the project. Due to the project involving children with developmental disorders, the researchers have pointed out a few concerns when engaging with them including personal comfort, health, and hygiene.
Besides, a few technical difficulties also occurred, such as device batteries dying at key moments resulting in data losses, participants having to attend another class in the middle of sharing, and key data being tainted by interrupting peers.
Although frustrating, they noted the importance of having pen and paper always on hand for note-taking. Due to the ASD spectrum being widely varied, each child has their idiosyncrasies, making trust-building another challenge. Fortunately, positive support from teachers and parents allows them to overcome these challenges.
Finally, there remains a question to be asked: how can we help? While there are a few initiatives in Malaysia such as the Permata Kurnia programme providing early autism intervention and the Butterfly Effect by Malaysia Airports to aid passengers with autism, any small effort will also make a difference in accommodating autistic children and their supporters.
When encountering autistic children in public spaces, we need to show empathy and acknowledge the situation, especially during their meltdown or misbehaviour.
To provide practical help, we can extend our support to the caretakers or parents, for example offering to carry their belongings, keeping an eye on the child for them, or calling for professional help.
Even if we are unable to offer help, we are encouraged to just provide the space and not stare, criticise, or take pictures. After all, the last thing we want is to make the situation worse. With a change in mindset, we can make Malaysia a more accommodating country for autistic children.