May I know a bit about you?

I am Sophaneth Heng. I have a Master’s degree in Special Education from Flinders University, Australia. I have 8 years of experience in education working with children with special needs.

What is Special Education Cambodia (SEC)? Why do you establish the SEC?

Special Education Cambodia was created to raise awareness, and share information with parents and Cambodian citizens about children with different disabilities.

How did Special Education Cambodia begin?

I was inspired to start this page because of the confusion and misleading information that some people have about children with special needs and their conditions. A lot of the time, people believe that special needs children, especially with autism, can be cured or improved with traditional medicine, rituals, milk powder, or even by something as simple as eliminating gadgets from their life. I have also seen and heard the struggle of parents who have spent thousands of dollars on the wrong interventions, holding onto false hopes that someday their children are going to be the same as everybody else, instead of looking for the right support and accepting the way they are. For this particular reason, I think it is important for me to put myself out there as a source of information where parents and guardians of the children can access information that is transparent and straightforward.

What are the cores that Special Education Cambodia focuses on?

Being transparent and straightforward are the two main qualities that are very important to me and to SEC.  Being transparent and straightforward means, we have to tell parents the way it is although it is hard for us and for them. Being transparent and straightforward means telling them to accept their children, to stop hiding from their problems, and to look for the right support on time rather than being scared of their children’s conditions. It is important to bear in mind that at the end of the day, it is not about us. It is about the children and how we are going to support them in a way that they will be able to function independently in this society.

Special Education Cambodia, Seminar/Training at Methodist School of Cambodia

What do you think about the awareness of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in Cambodia?

I think we are going in the right direction. I think people are starting to be more aware of Autism and they are very interested in learning more about it. In the meantime, Mr. Chan Sarin, General Director from Hands of Hope Community has done significant contributions in the special education sector. He has been working with national and international organizations to create educational policy for special needs children based on the Cambodian context and spread awareness through multiple means for Cambodian citizens.

Do you have any figures related to autistic children in Cambodia?

According to Mr. Chan Sarin, Director of Hands of Hope Community and a president of Cambodia Autism Network, there are 1158 children with autism based on the latest data collected on 19 April 2019. This number is based solely on 6 provinces and it is expected to go up to 20000 people if we do not care or do not have reliable information about this condition.

Can you describe the general situation autistic children have in general and particular people?

Children with autism are very different from each other. This is why the name of autism is Autism Spectrum Disorder. While they share some common characteristics mainly, social, behavioral and communication aspects, it is crucial to keep in mind that no two autistic children are the same. Each of them is on the spectrum and, thus, the condition varies from one to another. I mention this because I want to emphasize how important it is to take this into account. It is important because when supporting children with autism, it really depends on each child and his/her needs.

Can Autism be cured? Autism Treatment? Or which fastest means to help them back to normal?

There is no cure and shortcut to this. I do not know for the future but for the moment Autism is a part of the disability. A disability means a condition that limits one’s ability to do certain things. For example, blindness. There are alternatives for blind people to learn to live and carry on with their life. The same thing is with people with autism. There are interventions that can be used to support them in a way that they can use to learn how to live and function in society. This includes daily living activities, social and behavioral aspects that can strengthen one’s ability in interacting and living in society.

Up to now, do scientists know the root causes that cause autism?

No evidence has been shown as to what directly causes Autism. However, there are a few factors that are linked to Autism. Those are genetics which is strongly correlated to Autism, and other factors such as pre-, peri-, and post-natal variables.

Aside from posting articles and videos to raise awareness, what else are you providing for such a service to help autistic children esp. to release their parents’ burden?

For the moment, my focus is on raising awareness. I train, free of charge, teachers and parents willing to learn about special needs education. I provide advice online and on phone calls to parents.

Some parents rely solely on so-called teachers who teach their children while teachers said they are the persons who could help their children much better. What do you recommend what teachers can do and what parents can help their children?

Having a degree in Special Education is required. We are equipped with specific and evidence-based interventions. We observe, interpret and adapt the curriculum based on the needs of the child. We closely collaborate with the parents to keep consistency both at home and at school.

What should parents or guardians have basically in order to help autistic kids effectively?

For the well-being of the kids, parents need to have patience, acceptance, and trust for the process of the interventions. Most importantly, send the kids to special schools for early interventions as soon as they can. As Mr. Chan Sarin, Director of Hands of Hope Community and a president of Cambodia Autism Network pointed out that parents should send their children with autism to schools before the age of 4 or as early as the age of 3. This is because it is the best time for early interventions for children with autism. In addition to this, parents should also do the following:

Putting the children to special needs school during the age of 36 months.
Choosing schools that equip with special education specialists in order to promote Physical Education, Music, Arts, Language, and Communication.
Allowing children to join in different activities with typically developing children to learn about the surrounding environment.
Working closely with schools because parental involvement is very important for special education.

Do you find any challenges to work with both autistic children and their parents?

Like any other job, being a special education teacher can be demanding. The most challenging part is to keep up with their unlimited energy. It can be exhausting sometimes after a full day at work.

Can you talk about kids who are already improving when they receive therapy?

The improvement of a kid depends on the levels and the strategies implemented. For example, one of my nonverbal students starts using simple words to communicate within one year as well as language communication and better behavior aggressive.