Edited by Alyssa Wieting
Parents who joined us for a roundtable discussion on children with special needs: Liz Milsom, Ling Teo, Suzanne Calton, Hong-Yi Wang
What is the realm of special needs your child identifies with?
Liz: I have a 20-year-old now, but when he was here in Shanghai with us, he was between 13-16 years old. He has ADHD and Asperger’s.
Suzanne: I have a special needs child with a modified education plan in the mainstream school system.
Ling: My son was born with a microtic right ear. He faces educational challenges due to being deaf on one side, as well as social adjustment challenges due to having a different physical appearance.
When you first moved to Shanghai, what were your expectations in terms of dealing with your child’s special needs?
Suzanne: For me, I didn’t know my child had special needs before we moved here. When we came here I noticed there were a few things that were different, but nobody knew what it was whether it was just ear infections or the change in environment. But he wasn’t talking, so that’s where it got tricky for us.
Liz: I did my research before coming here, and if we hadn’t found the school he went to, we wouldn’t have come to Shanghai because I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We were lucky because my husband had the choice of coming for a job here or not.
Ling: We anticipated challenges – of particular concern was the potential teasing [from other kids] once he started primary school, when children become more aware of differences in appearance. However, so far, we have been pleasantly surprised. He has been absolutely thriving both in social adjustment and learning.
What are the biggest hurdles of living in Shanghai?
Liz: Well my son, being a teenager, didn’t want any help at all. My boy didn’t want to come and he kept saying, “Oh I don’t want to come; I’ve got ADHD and I don’t want to be different.” He was doing all these ‘teenager things’ and I told him that we are going to a place where everyone is different. Everybody. Whether it be the color of their skin or how they look, and this helped him – knowing that everyone was different.
Ling: The access to and the high cost of specialist medical care. During his early childhood, we had difficulty finding suitable English speaking audiologists, speech therapists, hearing-aid service centers and operating theater facilities. Although the situation has improved now, there is still limited choice in relevant medical specialists – ENT & craniofacial surgeons.
Suzanne: My son has tried three different schools here and we were floundering. To have a school that takes in the kids with special needs is hard [to find]. The parent becomes the advocate for the child. Special needs parents have a high expectation because we know our kid better than anyone else. And the parents have some high demands, yet that’s what makes these programs what they are today – the high demands.
Are there any support groups for parents with children that have special learning needs?
Suzanne: In terms of community parent groups, there is Walk in My Shoes (WIMS) and Parents Enrichment Continuing Education (PEACE, a WeChat group).
Liz: WIMS is a parent-to-parent support group for families, whose child/children have special learning needs or other challenges. It’s a space where parents can share experiences and expertise in a supportive environment.
What external resources can families take advantage of here?
Liz: There are lots of psychologists at many of the medical facilities, but what their expertise is [can be difficult to find]. Mostly you find them through word of mouth, but then the problem is also that they all move around a lot as well.
Hongyi: I think some international hospitals, like Parkway and Shanghai United Family, have professional therapists and specialists that can help families. Shanghai Community Center does counseling and can also be a resource.
What would you want other parents who don’t have children with special needs to know?
Ling: It sounds cheesy, but the single biggest thing that they can do for our children is to teach their own kids kindness, empathy, patience and understanding, respect and acceptance, as well as to focus less on differences. This is important for all relationships, but even more so when a child has additional challenges.
Suzanne: All we want is acceptance, but imagine the skill sets that non-special needs children would gain, as well as the compassion they could learn by thinking outside of themselves.
Hongyi: Actually a simple solution is to ask yourself how many special needs kids have been invited to birthday parties each year. My son has not been invited to any in the past year and a half. So when we are talking about acceptance, it is something to think about.
What has been the most impactful thing a teacher has done for your child?
Hongyi: My son’s preschool held a strong policy of recruiting a certain percentage of teachers with some kind of special education background and it did help, not only kids with special needs, but all of the kids because those teachers tended to be more caring and more willing to communicate with parents about different education objectives. This is something that I have found really helpful.
Liz: The teacher my son had when we first came to Shanghai really helped him for the two years he was there. He understood children, no matter if they had special needs or not. He connected with them and he just got it. He let my son be who he was.
Ling: Sometimes Matthew appears not to be listening to instructions but often it can be that he simply did not hear them. Being understanding and patient rather than frustrated with him has made the biggest impact on his classroom experience.
Suzanne: My son has had many teachers who dedicated their all to him. They helped develop new programs and stretched the limits of the system. But he has had one teacher in particular that stood out because the teacher didn’t take it [the special need] personally. Sometimes I find that teachers take your child’s behavior personally and they don’t understand that it’s not a direct assault on them.