Ms Louise SoDeputy Secretary for Education
I recently read a news article about the passing of Donald Triplett, the world’s first person diagnosed with autism. Triplett lived to the age of 89 and, despite having autism, showed exceptional memory and a remarkable aptitude for mathematics. He spent 65 years working at a bank and enjoyed a healthy, happy and independent life under the care and love of his family, friends and colleagues. His life stands as a testament to the fact that children with autism can lead a gratifying and fulfilling life.
Currently, there are over 10 000 students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) studying in public sector ordinary schools in Hong Kong. In an ongoing effort to promote integrated education, the Education Bureau (EDB) provides schools with additional resources, professional support and teacher training to cater for the diverse learning needs of these students. We have launched the Project on Whole School Approach to Providing Tiered Support for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (Tiered ASD Project) in recent years, and introduced, as part of this initiative, the Strength-Based Programme in the 2021/22 school year to enhance support for students with ASD in public sector ordinary schools.
Whole School Approach to provide tiered support
In the 2011/12 school year, the EDB embarked on a phased pilot project to enhance support for students with ASD in mainstream primary and secondary schools, with an aim to develop a locally relevant and effective three-tiered model for the Whole School Approach to Providing Tiered Support for Students with ASD. This model uses evidence-based strategies to help students develop adaptive skills in learning, social interaction and emotion management, thereby facilitating their effective engagement in classroom learning and integration into the community. The impressive outcomes of the pilot project led to its regularisation starting from the 2020/21 school year, with a provision of about $62 million dedicated to promoting the project in the 2022/23 school year.
Under the Tiered ASD Project, multidisciplinary support teams are deployed to provide on-site consultation, participate in case discussions, conduct lesson observations with feedback, and organise workshops as well as inter-school networking activities. These efforts enable schools to create an ASD-friendly teaching and learning environment, which serves as tier-1 support. Tier-2 support is provided through collaboration between schools and non-governmental organisations, whereby supplemental small group training is arranged for students with ASD to improve their social adaptation and learning abilities, while the professional capabilities of schools and teachers are enhanced to meet the needs of students. In addition, individual education plans are developed by schools for students, serving as tier-3 support. The project has been very well received by the education sector and parents.
Build upon strengths to develop potential
We believe that “everyone has abilities” and each student possesses unique potential. Many students with ASD exhibit strong interests in specific subjects which they will persistently delve into. In recent years, the internationally acclaimed intervention strategy known as “Strength-Based Approach” has gained wide recognition. This approach aims to empower individuals with ASD by harnessing their strengths and interests, thereby boosting their self-esteem, self-confidence, social engagement, interpersonal relationships and life skills. It also helps them explore suitable study or career paths, enabling them to contribute to society with their own strengths. In line with this philosophy, the EDB introduced the Strength-Based Programme under the Tiered ASD Project in the 2021/22 school year. Premised on the concept of “building upon strengths to develop potential”, we organise distinctive and intriguing courses for senior secondary school students with ASD based on their individual strengths and interests. These courses cover topics on transportation planning, science and magic, drone programming and digital filmmaking. In the 2022/23 school year, the number of strength-based groups under the Programme was almost doubled to a total of 25, and new courses on drama, stop-motion animation, robotic arms and programming were introduced, benefitting nearly 300 students from about 100 secondary schools.
The Strength-Based Programme has two key features. First, each strength-based group comprises students from different schools, providing them with opportunities to make new friends. At the end of each course, a Showcase of Achievements is organised where students collaborate to present their “graduation” projects in groups and show what they have learnt to parents, teachers and other group members. During the preparation of their graduation projects, students can apply various skills such as communication and collaboration, problem-solving, time management, presentation and social etiquette skills acquired from the course. The second feature of the Programme is the introduction of a “dual-professional” teaching approach. This approach engages academic instructors with professional qualifications to share relevant knowledge and industry information with students, along with social workers experienced in supporting students with ASD to help enhance students’ social, communication or emotion management skills by providing timely guidance with evidence-based strategies throughout group activities. Social workers also maintain regular communication with teachers and parents, offering suggestions on how to improve students’ performance and achieving co-operation among families, the social service sector and schools.
Since the launch of the Strength-Based Programme, many students have been able to showcase their strengths and potential through this platform. Their remarkable work, presentations and performances have brought a new perspective to and earned positive feedback from parents and teachers. Moreover, the students eagerly look forward to each upcoming class, displaying a strong sense of engagement and motivation to learn. Some students who were reluctant to venture beyond their own neighbourhood now willingly step out of their comfort zones to participate in group tutorials. Some students who used to be “lone wolves” have started forming friendships with like-minded peers in the group, learning to value and cherish these connections. What is even more encouraging is that some students have discovered their life directions through the group activities and are determined to turn their interests into future careers. Many parents and teachers have noticed that the students have put on wider smiles with more cheerful demeanor as well as noticeable progress in their social skills and emotion management.
To celebrate the achievements of the Programme, we held the “See Me Fly” achievement exhibition cum celebration on 24 June. The event brought together participating students, parents, school personnel, course instructors and professionals from relevant organisations. Through the exhibition, student presentations and performances, as well as sharing from parents and instructors, everyone gained an understanding of the characteristics and accomplishments of different strength-based groups, and was delighted by witnessing the growth of students.
Walking hand in hand with appreciation and acceptance
The success of the Tiered ASD Project attests to the power of cross-sectoral collaboration. It is my sincere hope that all sectors of society will join us in supporting students with ASD on their journey. By lending a listening ear, showing understanding, acceptance and appreciation for their unique personalities, and offering them more care and encouragement, we can help them open their hearts, find the courage and strength to excel in their lives, and, just like Donald Triplett, lead a fulfilling and abundant life.
The“See Me Fly” achievement exhibition cum celebration on 24 June celebrates the achievements of the Strength-Based Programme.
The Secretary for Education, Dr Choi Yuk-lin (right), listens to a student of the Strength-Based Programme introducing his learning achievements.
The“Dual-professional” teaching approach of the Strength-Based Programme.
The stop-motion animation course of the Strength-Based Programme.
24 July 2023