WHEN the government allocated RM58.7 billion in the 2024 Budget to the Ministry of Education (MOE), Finance Minister Datuk Seri Tengku Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz also said RM20 million had been specifically allocated to improve facilities and teaching tools in special needs schools.

In addition, the government had provided a special incentive for the establishment of 50 new kindergartens for children with disabilities.

For parents with special needs children, studying in government schools, especially those with learning disabilities such as autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, slow learners, ADHD, global developmental delay and other intellectual disabilities these allocations proved disappointing, as many of their special needs children and adults were in need of much more, especially in the area of art, music and sport.

The overall consensus was the curricula used in the special needs classes in government schools, whether primary or secondary did not fit the needs of the differently abled children, many of whom had intellectual disabilities of varying levels.

Dr Che An Abdul Ghani, mother to 33 year old autistic artist Yuri Azzari Zaharin also feels purely academic studies does not suffice for her son, whom she has been training to be independent since young.

Yuri had been showing a keen interest in art and was doodling and playing around with different colours from the moment he learnt how to use colour pencils.

“Yuri’s talent was discovered when he was four years old. He liked to scribble and draw. To further develop his art, we signed him up to be trained by a well-known artist and he picked up his artistic skills even more and has produced many works of art that have been sold,” said Che An, who also shared the many challenges they faced when Yuri was growing up, such as lack of art teachers.

While there are services provided by the government, they are not targeted enough in developing the specific skills needed for autistic or other special needs children, such as in art, or music. These special needs individuals such as Yuri do not respond to normal textbook teaching as their attention span is limited. We need to captivate their attention in other ways.

The government can extend more help and support for young special artists by establishing a Centre of Excellence for youth with autism to showcase their talents through art or even music, as there are many autistic children who display such talent,” she added.

Che An also applauded parents who went the extra mile and enrolled their special needs children and adults in art exhibitions so they could earn an income for themselves.

Another mother, Tan Li Ling with her musically inclined special needs daughter, Sarah Ow, 26 years also believes in leveraging on the talents of their children, rather than their academic abilities as they could develop their careers based on their talents.

“Sarah’s love for music began as a toddler, being rocked to sleep with songs, and was then later diagnosed with mild autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a child. Music seemed to calm her down and it was discovered she had perfect pitch, and could hit the right notes when needed,” said Tan.

When I visited the special needs classes in the government schools, I explained about her special love of music but the teacher there explained there were no music or art classes available and suggested I enroll her in a private school.

Although disappointed, Tan registered Ow in private schools and also separately for music classes.

Today Sarah has reached piano Grade 8 at IGSCE Cambridge level, with an A-star and has been teaching at kindergartens and special needs centres since 2018.

Tan said: “It has been a long and difficult journey, as parents, we gave her the best of training and it has paid off. Earlier, when she was younger, we spent RM 5,000 a month on her therapies, and her music classes were expensive but no special child can succeed without some form of therapy and I’m happy that I took that government teacher’s advice and enrolled her in music privately,” said Tan.

Today Sarah is part of a band, Zimi J, made up of five musicians, all of whom have high functioning autism.

The most unusual aspect of the band, they will host the first concert composed entirely of persons with disabilities in Malaysia, scheduled to take place on July 13th at Menara BAC in Petaling Jaya.

Tan said Ow and her team mates, in the concert titled “Unveiling Uniqueness”, hope to show members of the public that special needs adults, given the right form of training can contribute to society.

What is noteworthy is that Ow and her bandmates also make a living teaching music at Music Mart (MM), a music school in Petaling Jaya. At MM, they teach drums, keyboards and guitar to both normal and autistic children.

Tan hopes more can be done to expose special needs children, especially the autistic high functioning individuals to music at a young age, as that is when they absorb it the fastest.

Another sports organisation, CaretoRun, a non-profit organisation, whose programmes are run by psychologist Prem Kumar, seeks to improve the lives of special needs young people through one-on-one sports mentoring programmes.

Chun Hahn, 17, who is autistic took part in the KL Bar Run 2024, together with 29 other special needs participants in 12 teams, joining more than 1,000 lawyers in the baton run in January this year.

All 30 participants were trained and coached under CaretoRun and former race director of the Kl Bar Run, Lilian Lee, said she witnessed first-hand the benefits of sports for special needs.

“I have seen these children transformed through their participation in the programme. Some of the successful children have gone on to become mentors for the KL Bar Run annually.

There are not many races that provide opportunities for these children to race,” she added.

Prem, who heads the whole programme for the training said:

“This is the fifth year and the numbers have grown over the years with the full participation of parents, volunteers and most importantly, individual sponsors, who have not only sponsored the registration of the special needs children, but also the prizes,” he said.

Many parents hoped the government would consider introducing non-academic skills such as art, music and sport in centres set up specifically in government schools, where special needs classes were located.