Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and developmental needs were not so widely known 20 years ago. In 2020, 5,000 pre-schoolers were diagnosed with developmental needs according to the Ministry of Health. In comparison, there were 4,000 new cases in 2015 and 2,500 in 2010.
While some observers believe that ASD and developmental needs are becoming more prevalent in recent years, this however is not conclusive. Cases may not have been picked up in the early days because not much was known about these conditions, but that is not to say they were not present or prevalent then. Given the medical advancement and greater knowledge in these areas now, it has become easier for these conditions to be diagnosed.
Our nation and the disability sector have responded relatively well, supporting more people with ASD and developmental needs, particularly for young children. Over the years, early intervention programme for infants and children (EIPIC) centres have been set up and early intervention (EI) services developed and backed by mainstream Government funding. In fact, about half of the children whom we had supported in our EIPIC and Continuing Therapy programmes in FY2020/2021 fall under the ASD or suspected ASD category. This may also be a similar trend observed by the 17 EIPIC centres in Singapore that are run by nine other social service agencies (SSAs) that also support children.
There is a consensus among special needs professionals and educators that introducing EI solutions in the early years of a child’s life is crucial, and clinical statistics and evidence-based studies seem to support this theory. Regardless, it has always been through the stories exchanged between our teachers and therapists and caregivers on the child’s progress that we know we are doing something right. In fact, one of our former EIPIC clients returned to thank his therapist for her support before he enlisted for his National Service. This warmed our hearts and spurs us on.
Capability building plays a large part in determining how much and what kind of support we can offer. At SPD and across the sector, we equip our staff with knowledge they need to carry out their jobs and boost training so that ASD clients can be better supported. Sometimes SSAs would partner allied educators to support ASD students in their schools. Some courses in institutes of higher learning have also been incorporating modules related to ASD to prepare their students for professions that could involve supporting those with special needs.
When there were gradually more young children being diagnosed with ASD and developmental needs in the earlier years, the sector responded with a slew of EI solutions and learning support which grew steadfastly especially over the last five years.
Years on, many of these children have completed or are completing school and entering a new phase in their life. This begs the question “What’s next?”. What are their options after school? Are there adequate vocational training places? Do we know how they can and want to be supported when they enter the workforce? Are there adequate care facilities for those who require higher support, or should staying at home be their only option?
As an organisation with a history of serving people with physical disabilities and later sensory disabilities, we took a leap of faith in 2018 to support autistic individuals in our Day Activity Centre (DAC) – our first foray into the autism space in our adult and elderly services. Our staff underwent intensive training in order to manage and provide good care for our new clients. We have also begun opening up our Sheltered Workshop to autistic individuals who are deemed suitable for vocational training. We also had to review and modify our existing setups and infrastructure, and not just develop capability through staff training. Painting our walls with muted colours (as bright colours could trigger sensory overload in those with autism) and setting up a calming down room are modifications that we have made at our centre. Having decided to support adults with autism, our considerations had to go beyond making accommodations solely for those with physical and sensory disabilities.
Investments in manpower and infrastructure has become critical in the provision of post-18 services for people with disabilities. However, simply focusing on building more day activity centres or expanding centre-based programmes may not be sustainable in the long-run. It calls for policymakers and disability organisations like SPD to be more creative and innovative in providing solutions given the finite resources that we have. This critical area would challenge our status quo, needing the whole sector and more to make the impact we want to see, and demands our collective will and perseverance to solve.
For now, let’s open our hearts and minds in welcoming people of all abilities into our workplaces and in the community, and recognise everyone as valued members of this society.