Autism, a developmental disorder characterised by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and non-verbal communication, is a growing issue in Cambodia. A great deal of effort has been put into assisting young children born with the condition, but much less attention is paid on aiding autistic teens and young adults. In an exclusive interview with Khmer Times, Chan Sarin, founder and executive director at Hands of Hope Community on Autism in Cambodia, says that equipping autistic youth with working skills is a serious challenge, but not an impossible mission.
KT: First of all, how do you describe your work with autistic youth?
Mr Sarin: There are schools for autistic children in Cambodia, but only a few for late teens and young adults. While autism is a relatively new concern in the country, we are currently doing our best to provide them with life skills that allow them to find a job, but our job is even more difficult than those of government ministers. Why? In a ministry, the officials follow the orders of the minister, but autistic youths, unlike young children, hardly do what we tell them. Their speech is difficult to understand. Those who work with them must be very patient. Meanwhile, their parents do not care much for them.
KT: Can you explain how autistic youth should be prepared for their future?
Mr Sarin: Everything shall begin from early childhood. Their parents need to spend much time with them, starting from the age of three, and try to instill life skills, such as communication, into them. When they reach school age, the parents have to send them to a school for autistic children until they enter adolescence. After that, the parents have to consider whether the children can go to secondary school. Even if they can, the parents, with assistance from the autism experts, have to trace their progress strictly. In short, the parents always come first in the process.
KT: And what do you think about parents of autistic teens in Cambodia?
Mr Sarin: To be frank, in the past seven years, among hundreds of autistic children’s parents, almost no one spends much time with their children. In my recent research, I found that most of the parents just drop their children at schools and leave for their work, solely relying on the teachers for the children’s development. Yet, schooling is not the treatment because autism is not a disease.
KT: How do you think we should integrate autistic youth into society as they get older, especially in the workplace?
Mr Sarin: The integration is not easy, obviously, both parties must be responsible for this: the families and the government. In my own opinion, the government needs to have a large package of long-term budgets for organisations like us to educate and train those born with autism and to provide them with a job opportunity. In Japan, for example, autistic young adults are trained to make chocolate or envelopes, the work that requires repetitions rather than intellectual thinking, in a special environment out of factories. The Cambodian government, meanwhile, needs to begin preparations by 2020. There cannot be delays because there are many people born with autism today. We no longer depend on donations, which we receive less and less every year. I am proposing to borrow 10 hectares of land to be used in their vocational training. While the government is paying more and more attention to autism in Cambodia, we need more time to explain why this issue has to be dealt with seriously to relevant ministries and the Cambodian people.
KT: Can you trace autistic children’s talents and potentials? And how do you encourage them to develop their talents?
Mr Sarin: Again, it is difficult but not impossible. Many great people, such as Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein, were born with autism. All they need is the right orientation and encouragement. We are trying to trace the talents from the children from our school, and by 2020, we believe we will be able to find those with special talents and help them focus on developing these talents. For now, we need more time since we are new and in need of more experts and resources to do that.