WP GERALD GIAM: SPECIAL NEEDS CHILDREN SHOULD PAY SAME SCHOOL FEES AS NORMAL KIDS

Another wonderful evening of house visits. I was very moved by a conversation with a resident who was concerned about educational options for autistic children in Singapore. There is Pathlight School, but it is located in Ang Mo Kio and he lives in Simei. While it is good that the nearby school provides additional resources to support special needs students, it is not the same as attending a specialised school like Pathlight. He expressed hope that the government will set aside more resources to build more of such schools so that special needs education will be more accessible to residents living in different parts of the island.

The school fees in special needs schools tend to be much higher ($350/month in the case of Pathlight) than in mainstream schools (although there are subsidies for the needy). I shared my view that parents of special needs children should not be paying any more in school fees, than those with children in mainstream schools. While the costs of running special needs schools may be higher, this burden should not fall disproportionately on these parents, who are already faced with higher costs for many other things that parents like me take for granted.

A few months ago, I read an excellent series of articles in The Economist (16 Apr 2016) on “Dealing with autism – Beautiful minds, wasted”. The newpaper pointed out that the potential of autistic people is largely squandered in both poor and rich countries. Globally, 80% of those with autism are not in the workforce — numbers which the Economist says “represent a tragic human toll, as millions of people live idle and isolated outside the world of work.” One American study suggests the costs could be as high as 2% of GDP. It could be even higher in Singapore.

People with autism may have a disability, but they often have extraordinary gifts in a few areas, which can make them very effective workers, given the right environment. But in order for autistic children to grow up to be productive workers and live fulfilling lives, they need an appropriate educational environment. Not all autistic children do better in mainstream classes. Some need to attend more specialised schools.

As one of the richest countries in the world, we must do more to support parents with special needs children. Their children are also our nation’s children, and a precious resource which we must not squander.

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