Giving children with special needs a voice
The first time Vivien Ong interacted with a child with special needs while volunteering with Make-A-Wish Foundation in 2017, she was struck by a sense of helplessness as she had no clue how to communicate with him.
Back then, she was a final year student at the National University of Singapore studying life sciences. As a wish granter, she encountered children with critical illnesses of different ages and backgrounds.
But then, she met a boy who would change the course of her future.
Born with pyruvate dehydrogenase deficiency, the boy was non-verbal and could only communicate using gestures and his body language. His parents had to help interpret his actions for her.
But when Vivien took out a toy Ironman figurine as an icebreaker, she noticed how his eyes sparkled and how a giggle escaped his mouth as he reached out for the figurine excitedly. That moment was when she felt like she truly connected with him.
“This encounter made me realise how there is this group of individuals who we do not exactly come across in our daily lives, that need a lot of support and care,” says Vivien.
But this incident marked the turning point for Vivien to consider pursuing a speech language therapy (SLT) seriously as a career. She started reading up more about the field and did some job shadowing at places like Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Changi General Hospital and St Luke’s Eldercare.
In Feb 2019, she went on to pursue a Masters in Speech and Language Pathology course at the University of Sydney.
Life as a speech and language therapist
Today, Vivien is living her dream helping to give children with special needs a voice, in her job as a speech and language therapist at MINDS.
Since starting work in April 2021, each day brings a new challenge.
The 27-year-old juggles a case load of some 8 students a day, with conditions ranging from moderate to severe intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder to Down’s syndrome.
The more bread and butter cases are those who communicate intentionally, and mostly express themselves using single words.
The more challenging cases are when the students are communicating unintentionally – they have not made the communication connection and do not yet realise that what they do have an effect on those around him/her.
Hence, Vivien’s job is to help them develop early communication skills and work on things like joint eye contact, joint attention, and engagement.
Over half hour to 45-minute sessions, Vivien focuses on functional communication in the areas of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), language and speech.
She does this with a variety of tools like key word sign, picture exchange communication system (PECS), AAC apps like Proloquo2Go, and picture communication board. Through a simple ball game, she can teach them words like ‘big’, ‘small’, ‘kick’ and ‘throw’, for example.
She recalls taking on the case of an 8-year-old boy with autism, who had high sensory needs and had trouble sitting still. Being a new therapist, she found the experience a little daunting.
During the sessions, the boy would look around the room, swipe the toys away, lie on the floor, giggle uncontrollably to himself and flap his hands in excitement. To engage him, she would use food like biscuits to hold his attention, be extra firm and count down.
It was only after speaking to his private speech therapist to gain a better understanding of their interactions that she learnt more about his likes and dislikes.
An Uphill Journey
Every child is different, says Vivien. You could see kids who progress by leaps and bounds in a year, and others that make minimal progress over several years. Sometimes, they regress after the school holidays. It takes the combined effort of teachers, therapist, and parents to follow through with the child.
To be a good therapist, one needs to have “empathy not sympathy” to work with caregivers and families, patience, creativity and flexibility, she said.
But what people don’t recognise is that speech and language therapy is not a “magic miracle”.
Some liken these services to a tuition centre and expect the child to miraculously be able to communicate. It doesn’t work like that, she said. Others may also criticise the use of the AAC, thinking that it may breed over-reliance on picture tools and hinder the child’s language development.
Despite their difficulties, Vivien is heartened to see that the children never stop trying.
“When you see your students who start off their lives with more obstacles in front of them and still trying their best despite the adversity, it makes me strive to do better every day,” she said.
As MINDS celebrates its 60th anniversary, we would like to encourage more people step forward and explore speech and language therapy as a career.
MINDS’ speech and language therapists enhance communication, speech, and social skills through evaluating and implementing a variety of intervention strategies for individuals with special needs who face challenges in speech, language, and communication. Learn more about MINDS’ speech and language therapy and Allied Health Professional therapy services here.
Interested in making a difference in the lives of children and adults with special needs? Explore career opportunities with MINDS here.