For a child with special needs, a professional diagnosis could be the difference between simply getting through life versus having as fulfilling a life as possible.
With that in mind, Dr Sunitha Sivakumaran forged ahead with her plans to create awareness of this amongst the parents of the special needs’ children who attend Taarana. The Taarana centre was established by RYTHM Foundation in 2011 to create an inclusive educational environment for children with special needs. They also aim to provide resources and support to enable equal access to quality education for children of all abilities.
While rifling through the student files after taking the helm of Taarana, Dr Sunitha noticed that the children had diagnoses like mild autism, Asperger’s, and global development delay amongst others. However, these terms were tossed into the students’ application forms without official medical reports to accompany them and when Dr Sunitha looked at the corresponding education plans, something seemed amiss.
“If a child who supposedly has Asperger’s has been at a centre for several years and is still learning to count from 1 to 20 at ten years old, then it is obviously something else. Asperger’s is a high-functioning type of autism and children diagnosed with this disorder either have intellectual or artistic interest. They do not have speech problems. However, they are literal in speech and understanding.”
Dr Sunitha also shared the case of a child who was misdiagnosed with autism. After assessment by an occupational therapist, it was suggested that the child had cerebral palsy instead.
“The child in question lacks awareness and as a result displays emotional outbursts. She is unable to stand straight and tends to lean to her left. When she looks at you, she moves her entire head. We later found out that she is visually impaired in one eye and that her peripheral view has been affected. That’s why she turns her entire head.”
These are just some of many cases that emphasize the necessity of a professional diagnosis to paint a clearer picture of a child’s emotional or behavioural issues, so that the appropriate intervention methods can be put in place. There is ample evidence out there highlighting how children who receive early and appropriate intervention are more apt to gain essential social skills and see a dramatic difference in their lives.
As an educator and a parent of a special needs’ child herself, Dr Sunitha has had first-hand experience in seeing how obtaining a professional diagnosis for her son 19 years ago could positively impact him. “Today at 22, my son may not be a superstar, but he has come a long way from what he was then to what he is today.”
However, that was not before the unsettling experience of having a paediatric neurologist apathetically tell her, “Your son is not normal, and you just have to deal with it. We can’t label him yet or tell you what is wrong with him because he is too young.”
In stark contrast, the clinical psychologist who assessed Dr Sunitha’s son six months later was able to give her an accurate diagnosis. The clinical psychologist gently told her, “He is moderately autistic, and you can help him lead a relatively normal life, but it’s going to be a lot of work,” before recommending a list of people who could provide her with support.
“Of course, I was overwhelmed initially, but after a while I told myself that the only way is to move forward. We took him to a speech therapist, occupational therapist and behavioural therapist and I brought the diagnosis report each time,” says Dr Sunitha.
These therapists would compare their own findings with that of the clinical psychologists’ to come up with an intervention plan to work on their target for the year. The intervention plan put forth specific goals and milestones to achieve while tracking her son’s progress.
Dr Sunitha says, “Yes, paediatricians are doctors who specialise in children, but they may not have the necessary expertise to make an assessment of your child, unless they are a paediatric neurologist or a developmental paediatrician. The person who is qualified and possesses the tools for that are clinical psychologists who will give you a detailed report after a systematic series of tests. A psychiatrist may also prescribe treatment for the child.”
Dr Sunitha’s own experience with seeing the positive impact a professional diagnosis had on raising her special needs’ son gave her a unique perspective as she stepped into the leadership role she took on at Taarana just earlier this year.
“In order for us to work with the parents to ensure the child progresses, we first have to find out what the actual diagnosis is. Our teachers are not trained to diagnose, we can only help to work with the child based on an education plan that is developed in accordance with a diagnosis. That’s when I realised it is crucial that we have this webinar for the sake of the children and their development.”
Thus began the efforts to put together an online webinar on the topic of the importance of a professional diagnosis to enlighten the parents on how proper early diagnoses can contribute towards building an effective education plan for their special needs’ children.
A comprehensive education strategy built around a child’s diagnosis can actually reduce a child’s symptoms. It also has the potential to improve their overall development by helping them to learn new skills that will allow them to be more independent throughout their lives. This in turn may also enrich the bonds between parents and children.
The webinar on the importance of a professional diagnosis for special needs’ children was organised by Taarana recently with invited partners, the IDEAS Autism Center (IAC) who are located in Templer Park, Rawang. The crucial discussion was led by Audrey & Chen Wen, two clinical psychologists from Aloe Mind, an organisation dedicated to making mental health care affordable and accessible to all.
The webinar informed parents of the risks of misdiagnosis which include delayed recovery, increased psychological stress and wrong medicine being prescribed which can lead to other undesirable symptoms with potentially long-term repercussions. It was also stressed that parents should be wary about accepting treatment from clinicians who offer prescription without offering a diagnosis or explanation for their children’s behaviour.
This is particularly since behavioural therapy is effective for many children with disruptive behaviours. They also gave the parents a clear idea of the steps towards getting a professional diagnosis along with a list of resources for those who wanted to take the step to have their special children be diagnosed professionally.
Dr Sunitha shares, “A diagnosis is the first thing that needs to be done in order to truly assist the child. Otherwise, it will be a trial-and-error method, making it harder for the parents and children to move forward. Two parents shared their gratitude for the webinar, saying it was absolutely beneficial and I hope we can keep educating parents in this way.”
If you would like to consult a clinical psychologist about your child’s development, below is a list of resources:
NON-GOVERNMENTAL ORGANISATIONS (NGOs)