Official government data shows that almost half of the registered special needs individuals in Brunei — some 9,282 people — are actively pursing education at different levels.

While the statistics are encouraging, Chin Jern Hua, better known as McCoy (pictured above), saw an opportunity to set up an autism centre to fill the gap where government services end.

Another autism centre will ensure that individuals with autism can benefit from early intervention programmes and treatment, said the child psychologist and applied behavioural analysis (ABA) therapist.

The idea came to him back in 2010 when he returned from New York where he was working with an early intervention centre.

“Although Pusat Ehsan and SMARTER had been running for a few years, many parents [back in 2010] were still not aware and were not willing to seek help. There wasn’t much public awareness on autism,” he said.

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RISING DEMAND FOR SPECIAL NEEDS EDUCATION

McCoy said he had to take on other jobs to make ends meet, until early 2015 when he ran into an old boss who wanted to set up a school to help his autistic son. McCoy joined knowing his expertise and experience would help.

“He bought over a school and wanted to set up a special needs education department in the school for his son. This is the length some parents will go to in order to get help for their children,” he said.

“The demand [for special needs classes] was overwhelming. The space was limited in the school… within a year, we were at maximum capacity.”

In 2016, parents were still coming in for consultation even though they knew the school didn’t have the space to accommodate their children.

“Every week I had to set a day or two to meet with parents for consultations. We had to keep them on a waiting list. We also discussed expansion but it wasn’t possible at the time,” he said.

“The market is there but there are not enough service providers in Brunei. There are some new centres that popped up this year catering to autism, but what they are providing is a per session basis. Children with autism need a lot of time to practice and hone their skills.”

Earlier this year, McCoy seized the opportunity to set up his own autism centre.

The Spark Lifeskill Centre will provide customised programmes to help children with autism reach their full potential and increase their employability.The centre aims to operate five days a week and students will attend classes for three hours a day.

During the three hours, the children will be in a classroom setting with one assistant per child, as well as participate in intensive one-on-one sessions.

“We provide one-on-one intensive therapy to help the children focus and  provide them with group sessions to train them with social skills,” McCoy explained.

The centre aims to cater to children as young as two, said the therapist, because early intervention programmes provide the best opportunity for children to reach their full potential.

But because delayed diagnosis is so common in Brunei — which may be due to several factors, such as the long waiting time to meet with health professionals — by the time the child is diagnosed with autism they are already three to four-years-old.

‘PARENTS NEED TO BE INVOLVED’

Not following government school timetables, McCoy said that the classes will be conducted from Mondays to Friday. “The reason why I set it up on Friday instead of Saturday is because on Friday we want parents to come in and do the training with us,” he said.

“The children spend majority of their time with parents at home, which is why we want parents to be involved and make them understand the kind of training that we do at the centre. The sessions with parents will be periodically scheduled.”

The 32-year-old added that with the current space they have in Jangsak, the centre will be able to accommodate 40 students and 20 staff, with possibility of expansion.  He is also looking to hire Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD) graduates, once the centre has registered students.

HOW TO MAKE A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE SUSTAINABLE

The Spark Lifeskill Centre will start a trial run this November, with January 2018 slated as the target date for official operations.

McCoy said that in order for the centre to be sustainable, in addition to school fees, they will also be approaching companies to sponsor some of the children’s education.

“Because of the labour-intensive nature of the services, the fee we charge is not a small amount. We need to cover our expenses because we don’t want to run into the same financial issues that some of the centres in Brunei face.”

Fees for privately-owned special needs centres can range from $150 per month to $1,000 per month.

“Even if parents cannot afford to pay the fee, we still want them to come to our centre for consultation and we can work together on getting sponsorship for their child,” said McCoy. “We already have two companies that are willing to sponsor students, we also have potential donors.”

For young adults with autism, he added that the centre has services that help them with living skills and getting job placements. “We are talking to companies who are willing to hire them. There are success stories but the ratio is still too low,” he said .

McCoy believes that all children possess their own unique talents.

“We will focus on what the child is good at. I have a four-year-old student who learned to play the piano by himself — a musical prodigy.

“With the talent that they have, we will try to see where they can fit in the job market.”