Published:Sunday | April 9, 2017 | 4:00 AMGlenda Anderson
Student and teachers across the island are to benefit from a two-day workshop, set for early September, designed to help them identify children with autism spectrum disorders and to apply strategies in the classroom to help them learn.
The workshop, which is supported by the Ministry of Education, will be hosted at Mico University College in Kingston and is expected to partner with local university lecturers, with a team of Canadian and American education specialists, and will be directed by Jamaican advocate and author Richard Phillips.
The workshop is the pilot of a larger vision under an initiative dubbed 'Learning Initiatives for Autism Management' (LIAM), which was conceptualised by Phillips and which would see the credited sessions incorporated as a required core course for all teachers' colleges.
"The LIAM project is designed to build towards an inclusive educational system that accepts, supports, and motivates children with autism spectrum disorders in Jamaica so they can take their rightful place as respected contributors to society," Phillips says.
"We are hoping for 1,000 teachers per year for the next three to five years," he added.
He says, the concept was first developed in August 2011 at a meeting with then Minister of Education Andrew Holness, who encouraged him to pursue the idea.
Earlier this year, the LIAM project received government approval to proceed.
Chief education officer Dr Grace McLean commended the Mico and LIAM organisers for "bringing awareness and support" to such a critical area.
Ministry correspondence notes that "the main objective of the LIAM Project proposed certification programme is to significantly and sustainably enhance the academic performance of Jamaica's children on the autism spectrum at the early childhood, primary, and secondary levels by strengthening the pedagogic skills and content knowledge of the island's general education trained teachers. This will be achieved by a training and certification programme in autism education over time through the LIAM project. The partnership will have The Mico University College housing the programme and offering the requisite certification needed for the trainees.
"We hope to have a pilot run in the year 2017-18, where all the final-year students (approximately 600) at the Mico as well as about 300 in-service teachers, will do the one-two day workshop in the LIAM Curriculum. Training includes strategies, materials, and student activities. They will be exposed to hands-on demonstration of the strategies and techniques for working with children with ASD.
"A schedule of training will be done to include other teacher training institutions and in-service teachers across-island after the pilot phase. This, we hope, will eventually take the form of the distance learning with remote/virtual classrooms."
Dr Avril Z. Daley, who heads the special education department at The Mico, believes that while the concept is not new to Mico, it strengthens the overall programme.
"With a programme like the LIAM, we can retool our teachers," she says.
"The Mico now has a programme in place where all students are exposed to aspects of special education.
"We offer two mandatory courses: Introduction to Special Education and Special Education Methods and Resources.
"The thinking is that all teachers should be able to work with students with special needs in some way. "
With this approach, students would be able to identify different areas of challenge, be able to adapt the method used in the class for the child with special learning needs, and where necessary, get the knowledge to be able to make the adjustment.
"We want to get to the place where they (teachers) are more accepting," Daley says.
She points to instances where children to their detriment with challenges may be overlooked in the general system.
"There are many children with visual issues who are labelled as 'lazy'. there are some with hearing problems who don't realise they should be hearing every word that the teacher is saying."
A manual that is currently being developed for workshop participants has been hailed by Mico principal Dr Ashburn Pinnock as "culturally relevant and written at a level that parents in our communities as well as parents would be able to use".
The Canadian Jamaican Medical Assistance Society (CJMAS), which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, has committed to raising funds, for the manuals as this year's project.
"The long-term goal is to have an institution or college where all the developmental challenges of these children can be met," CJMAS member Dr Ronald Wong says.
Former Miss Jamaica World winner Kaci Fennel has been confirmed as special guest at the Society's anniversary celebration In British Columbia, Canada, on November 25.
The autism course for student teachers is the latest in a series of donor efforts for CJMAS.
"One of our earliest gifts was an air-conditioned room, fully equipped with 12 computers, installed at the Brimmer Vale High School, Port Maria, in 1998, and another later in Allman Town. The group's latest and largest donation was of two ultrasonic aspirator machines, one each to Kingston Public hospital (KPH) and Cornwall Regional hospital," says Wong.