More Than Just An Autism Centre

Run by a libertarian think-tank, the Ideas Autism Centre believes that the free market can fulfil the needs of the poor – at a low cost too

Text and photos by Carolyn Hong

MALAYSIA – The little boy stood against a green wall; his teacher coaxing him to look at the camera. He looked everywhere but at her. Another teacher made funny faces to persuade him. His classmates giggled but he didn’t budge.

Photography attempt: Failed.

All in a day’s work for a teacher – except that this is not a regular kindergarten. It’s the Ideas Autism Centre (IAC) run by the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas), a think-tank promoting market-based solutions to public issues.

A closer look at the cheery classroom tells you that it’s not a kindergarten. Chairs and tables are pushed right up against the wall to prevent the children from running around, but they still do.

The IAC is the only autism centre in Malaysia catering to low-income families in a holistic manner. It provides full day care, early intervention therapy and education to prepare autistic children for mainstream schools, at a low cost or for free.

Other centres usually offer partial day care, with therapy at an extra cost.

But Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of Ideas, said the idea is to enable the child’s parents to work, if they chose to.

“Or else, how would they get out of poverty?” he said.

Thus, the IAC sets out to provide comprehensive care and education during working hours from 8am to 6pm on weekdays, in a neighbourhood where many of these children live, about 20km from Kuala Lumpur.

Opened in October 2012, IAC is a pilot project by Ideas to meet the needs of the poor, based on the principles of a free market philosophy which encourages greater self-reliance and less dependence on the government.

“This does not absolve the government from its responsibility but the key thrust is to reduce the burden on the government, and by extension, the tax payer,” said Wan Saiful, 40.

Autism Spectrum Disorder covers a range of brain developmental disabilities which manifest as difficulty in social interaction, communication and repetitive behaviours. It was estimated that one in 600 children in Malaysia is autistic.

While there are private centres for the wealthy, the poor have to rely on charitable centres or government hospitals where it takes months to get a specialist appointment.

IAC tries to fill the gap.

Besides full day care, it offers speech and occupational therapy, and education. Its students, most of whom cannot speak, are taught language skills as well as therapy to develop their motor skills, said principal Sharifah Salleh.

Many also need to learn to cope with sensory problems which cause them to, among others, get distressed at loud noises. Twice a month, they have horse-riding and swimming classes to improve their social skills.

Classes are also held for parents to learn to manage their children at home.

It has seven teachers and an occupational therapist, while a specialist from the government’s Selayang Hospital visits once a month.

The goal is to have the children ready for mainstream school by the time they reach nine. So far, IAC has successfully sent nine children to regular schools.

Securing adequate funding is, by far, the toughest part of its journey.

Clearly, the fees aren’t sufficient to cover the annual expenditure of RM750,000. Students pay only RM300 a month if their household per capita income is below RM1,500, and pay nothing if it’s below RM500. (Per capita income is calculated by dividing the monthly household income with the total members. For example, a household income of RM6,000 for a family of six, works out to a per capita income of RM1,000.)

Currently, three corporate foundations are providing funding until the end of this year. Given that donations can fluctuate, Ideas is now looking at a model to redistribute from the rich to the poor.

At the beginning, it did try to do that by charging higher fees for wealthier students but that didn’t work. Their parents preferred to send them to more exclusive centres. Ideas is now revisiting this plan – but this time, it will have separate centres for the two groups.

Wan Saiful said they are in talks to take over an autism centre in a posh neighbourhood which generates enough profit to run the IAC, and more.

“Our priority is to turn IAC into a social enterprise although at the moment, the model is a charitable one,” he said.

This is likely to happen sometime this year.

As IAC is a pilot project, it is kept an open book to visitors, even its accounts, so that others may learn from its experience.

Ideas has also used this model for a school for refugee children which it set up in Kuala Lumpur in August 2014. The Ideas Academy, with 24 students aged 12 to 17, is a secondary school.

It has been a long journey but with funding now more certain, there is a greater sense of hope for IAC’s children – including the little boy who refused to be photographed that day.

He may not like the camera but he was happy to welcome us with the traditional Malay greeting for elders – a kiss on the hand.

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