Pupils learn at their own pace

A rare institution in this country, the Future Centre for Special Needs in Abu Dhabi has succeeded in integrating 100 special needs pupils into mainstream schools since it opened its doors in 2000.

Pupils at the centre attend interactive classes, where they are engaged in stimulating activities that also include drawing and singing. Ravindranath K / The National
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A rare institution in this country, the Future Centre for Special Needs in Abu Dhabi has succeeded in integrating 100 special needs pupils into mainstream schools since it opened its doors in 2000.

Children begin trickling into Abu Dhabi’s Future Centre for Special Needs at 8am. Early arrivals play or receive some individual attention. Thirty minutes later, they begin the first group session.

“Circle time is different for different classes,” says Anjum Jaffer, head of education. “In some classes, we teach them the days of the week, the months of the year or numbers. In others, it’s just ‘good morning, how are you today?’”

Ms Anjum says everything, even playtime, is highly structured and the children are always learning.

“There are many children who don’t know how to play, or how to interact with each other, or how to enjoy themselves. So we have to teach them everything.”

The Future Centre opened its doors to 60 pupils in 2000. In 2011, the centre, of which Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak is president, moved to Mohammed bin Zayed City.

Today, it has 100 staff members for about 200 pupils, aged between 3 and 20, from more than 20 countries. About half are Emirati.

The pupils have developmental disorders including autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.

The centre offers them hope. Some will learn to help around the house, or even be able to work and live independently one day. Others may be more limited.

But all of them are treated as individuals and encouraged to be as kind as the centre is to them.

To date, the centre has succeeded in having 100 pupils integrated into mainstream schools.

Last year, it became the country’s first centre to be accredited by the Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network, or Asdan, charity.

This year, it won its second Roads and Transport Authority award for sustainable transport.

One classroom is filled with music. Raymund Alvarado, the music teacher, strums a guitar and sings within a circle of children, aged between 4 and 9. The children respond with differing speeds and accuracy.

This group is one of the four classes that learn in Arabic. These classes are split into two age groups, from 4 to 9 and 10 to 15, but therapists will often speak to them in English, and they understand basic words.

The centre has 18 English language classes for international pupils and Arab children whose parents want them to be bilingual.

The song picks up, and the children take turns playing shakers and maracas.

“Touch your knees, touch your toes, touch your mouth and chin below. Move your hands all around,” sings Mr Alvarado.

Teacher Hanan Redwan encourages the children with cheers and applause. Although the children laugh, this is very important work.

“They are following instructions, imitating movements and listening. Most of them now can repeat some songs in Arabic or English,” says Ms Redwan, co-ordinator for the Arabic section.

Elsewhere, a group of slightly older English language children are also singing.

“Are we ready?” asks teacher Kismette Riguerra. “The wheels on the bus go round and round,” she begins, wide-eyed and excited.

The children respond with varying degrees of enthusiasm and coherency, although they thoroughly enjoy the verse, “The babies on the bus go ‘wah, wah, wah”.

After the song, Ms Riguerra shows the class some paintings they completed earlier. The children cheer one another’s work and everyone earns a happy face sticker.

She then picks up a bag of large, magnetic letters. The pupils take turns picking out a letter and trying to think of a word.

They move enthusiastically through H for horse, Q for question, and so on. Quietly, an autistic boy enters the class, having just returned from individual therapy.

Minutes later, a loud banging threatens to disrupt the class. A boy is kicking a table. An assistant whispers a few quiet words, and he stops.

Pupils are assessed by physical, occupational, speech and language therapists who collaborate to create individualised therapy plans, says Hala Ghassan, assistant director for clinic operations. “The goals have to match the teachers’ goals and the other therapists’ goals,” Ms Ghassan says. “Then we call parents to include them in the programme.”

Every two or three months, those working with the child have a “collaboration meeting” to discuss results and re-evaluate objectives. The children also have individualised education plans.

Some pupils will attend the Future Centre only for a few years before moving on to mainstream schools.

“If a child is not able to learn at the same pace, we keep repeating, reviewing, changing our strategies, trying new things,” says Ms Jaffer.

One of Ms Riguerra’s pupils is trying to read a row of letters. He pronounces ‘A’, but then moves through a series of noises, ending on a squeak.

Ms Jaffer says the centre exposes pupils to the alphabet and numbers at an early age.

“Whether they understand what it actually is doesn’t matter at that stage. It means that when they are ready to learn the alphabet, they are more familiar with the letters and sounds.”

Down the corridor is a different type of room. Its walls are lined with foam padding. This is a safe room where children who are at risk of hurting themselves or others can calm down, says Ms Ghassan.

“There is another room, which we call the sensory room. It uses different kinds of lights to help relax the children, and help pupils who are having sensory issues.”

Sensory processing disorder affects the nervous system’s ability to correctly receive or process sensory information, such as touch or sight.

The centre has a swimming pool and a dedicated physiotherapy room with an array of equipment. One child excels on the walker, while a young girl struggles on the cycling machine. She is unable to express herself but there is sorrow in her eyes.

It is normal for children to cry but if they do not push through the pain, they will not improve – and their condition could even deteriorate.

Some who could not walk move to wheelchairs, walkers and eventually independent walking.

“Early intervention helps,” says Ms Ghassan, “whether it’s in education, therapy or skills.

“We have had pupils who were unable even to communicate, and now, they can communicate easily, with verbal or non-verbal techniques.”

Elsewhere in the centre, Kirsten Shwabel teaches a group of pupils aged 3 to 5. She uses a picture schedule to explain the class routine.

“They know that if they’re sitting in their chairs, it’s work time. If they’re sitting at the mat, it’s mat time.”

Ms Shwabel’s class begins with some ABCs and then video. “Friends, good watching,” she says. “Work time is finished.”

She asks them to listen for their names, before moving over to the mats where they do some "follow my motions" exercises. Ms Shwabel then reads them Mama Cat has Three Kittens.

Thereafter, children sing along to some alphabet songs, following the melodies and rhythms, and clap at the end.

Meanwhile, a group of pupils aged 12 to 16 is in an academic class, studying the Asdan syllabus – an accreditation scheme that aims to prepare them for adulthood and teach them to function independently.

On the wall is a smartboard, for which they raised funds with a “fun run”. The centre is funded through admission fees, and fund-raising through its annual gala dinner and private donations.

Its admissions process begins with medical and assessment reports. Children are put on the waiting list and when spaces open up they are selected, depending on the type of space available.

Teacher Rachel Harvey points to a photograph of a child helping another to tie up his laces. “How do you think he needs help?” she asks, reminding the class not to shout.

One pupil puts his hand up: “Is it his shoelaces?”

“Yes, that’s right,” answers Ms Harvey. The class goes through a few more examples.

“We have to learn, we have to practise. We need help. Who helps you learn how to walk, generally?”

One pupil says he is helping to teach his younger brother.

Another says: “I remember one little memory of my mum teaching me to walk.

“I just ran down this hill and my mum was holding the bags from my nursery and was just chasing after me. I wasn’t stopping and she had to shout out ‘stop that boy’.”

Everyone laughs but they soon move on.

After school, from 2pm to 4.30pm, the centre also hosts intensive therapy programmes to support those not enrolled there.

“The skills that our pupils learn here can be used productively in the community,” says Ms Jaffer. “We really want people to be aware of what these children can do, rather than focus on what they cannot.”