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From Thoughts to Talk: Helping an Autistic Pupil to Communicate

26 Dec 2008

Mr Ahmad Najib Muslim, Special Needs Officer at River Valley Primary School

Using comic strips and puzzles, Mr Ahmad Najib Muslim coaches Lurk En on social interaction.

Why would you feel a burst of pride to see a student talk to his classmates about the latest storybook adventures of a talking mouse while the teacher is away?

What Lurk En did may seem typical for an enthusiastic pupil. However, it was in fact the result of unwavering efforts by Mr Ahmad Najib Muslim, Lurk En's Special Needs Officer, his form teacher Ms Quek Wei Ting and his parents.

Together, they have helped Lurk En manage the challenges of his autism and learn how to communicate better with his schoolmates. Therefore, while it was not the right time to be talking in class, Mr Ahmad is more than glad to see Lurk En making an effort to come out of his shell.

Learning to live with special needs

At River Valley Primary School, pupils with special needs such as Lurk En enjoy the support structure of a weekly withdrawal program. Under Mr Ahmad, the pupils learn appropriate ways to communicate and heighten their social awareness skills. The sessions also help Mr Ahmad to analyse the pupils' behaviour and figure out why they respond the way they do.

Mr Ahmad Najib Muslim, Special Needs Officer at River Valley Primary School

Mr Ahmad uses flowcharts to help students break down complicated tasks into more manageable steps.

Mr Ahmad recalls one incident in which Lurk En refused to proceed to class after the morning assembly despite repeated pleas by his concerned classmates. Undaunted by Lurk En's initial refusal to open up, Mr Ahmad patiently used drawings and comic strips to tease out details of what went through Lurk En's mind that morning.

It turned out that Lurk En was disturbed by something that happened during assembly. "After understanding the issue, I explained to him the consequences of his actions," recounts Mr Ahmad. "We also worked through other possible courses of actions he could have taken." Under Mr Ahmad's guidance, Lurk En agreed to rejoin his classmates in class.

Standing on his own two feet

As Lurk En's form teacher, Ms Quek endeavours to help him put his feelings into words. Over a year, she spent recess time with him, gaining his trust and confidence. "I chatted with him even though he did not speak or respond initially," she shares. "I discovered that as time goes by, he became more vocal and liked to share observations with me." She also learnt how to convey vital lessons; for instance, to help Lurk En understand his physical needs like hunger, she explains by telling him about the digestive system.

Mr Ahmad Najib Muslim, Special Needs Officer at River Valley Primary School

Working hand in hand with Lurk En, Mr Ahmad has earned his trust and helps him to open up.

Working together in their own ways, Ms Quek and Mr Ahmad seek to boost Lurk En's self-confidence with a heavy dose of affirmation to celebrate his achievements. "Although autistic children do not show much expression, they are still like any other children," explains Ms Quek. "Whenever Lurk En does something good or right or obtains good results, I'll ask him to stand and get the class to clap for him."

Lurk En's mother, Mrs Joan Lee, is heartened by her son's progress in school. "I see a lot of improvement in his academic results, as he can now focus and work for a longer period of time," she states. "He is more cheerful as well!"

Ultimately, Lurk En's teachers hope to instil in him a sense of independence. As Ms Quek recounts, "Last year, one of Lurk En's buddies asked me what would happen to Lurk En when he grows up and we are not by his side." It suddenly dawned upon her that "the best gift we can give Lurk En is to teach him to take good care of himself." And thanks to the support that the staff and fellow pupils at River Valley Primary School have extended to him, Lurk En is slowly but surely emerging from his shell and learning to stand and grow on his own two feet.