A child with autism is working on a piece of an elephant calf while another is playing with a simple handicraft he has just finished.

They are both taking part in a program which works to realize a more inclusive society through art.

These kids are autistic and several come from poor families.

They paint the natural world with rich, vibrant colors, creating simple works with a unique character, all of its own.

The minors learn step by step how to use different kinds of materials and tools by observing, touching, smelling, and listening to stories.

A life-changing game

The class is part of a program called ‘Job Orientation for Autistic and Mentally Challenged Children,’ initiated by the Research Center for Children’s Rights (RCCR) in 2018.

As children on the autistic spectrum vary in attention span and ability to pick up new skills, instructors meticulously tailor training to each learner.

Their craft skills, which require a certain level of dexterity and judgment, have slowly enhanced.

Eager to translate the talent and passion of the autistic children into monetary values for their own sake, the center began putting the items, which come in diverse designs, on sale.

Their products have gained a following for their simplicity, unique appeal, and environmental friendliness as they are all repurposed from plastic bottles and milk cartons.

Knowing the backstory adds another dimension and many find something really fresh and interesting about the items.

Most of the profits from the art are returned to the children themselves.

According to Phan Thi Lan Huong, RCCR director and the instructor directly in charge of the art and craft class, the project has specific requirements on admission as not all children with disabilities are mentally capable of learning to do crafts.

“Doing crafts requires fine motor skills, cognitive capacity, and meticulousness which not all children with autism or mental challenges possess,” she explained.

Huong revealed the program was initiated to relieve parents’ concern over how their mentally challenged children can survive when they are no longer around.

Children with special needs are put at a serious disadvantage compared to their healthy peers, she noted.

While other children can go to school and later find a job, disabled teenagers are often confined to their own homes, turned away from intervention centers for autistic children, which only admit young children, as the parents often complain.

Even if the young children are taken in, they are not eligible for specialized training courses.

Huong and the staff at RCCR always take the parents’ concerns seriously.

“It is parents’ deepest wish that their autistic child, especially those in their teens, can find an environment where they are embraced as they are and can move forward alongside their peers,” she said.

“Vocational training also equips the kids with social skills, motor skills, and a sense of consciousness through labor.”

The project admits children aged 10 and above and also welcomes younger kids, according to Huong.

The classes typically begin from 8:30 am and end at 4:30 pm, with the kids warming up with songs, dances, and games before they are taught how to make handicrafts.  

Long road ahead

A weakness typical of autistic and mentally challenged children, as Huong pointed out, is their failure to strictly adhere to time rules.

“They may be totally consumed in what they are doing, but then just stand up and leave for other things,” she said.

“Others have limited concentration spans and some are even prone to changes in weather and can’t work properly, among other typical behaviors of the disorder,” Huong noted.  

This has made the children, despite their proper training, unlikely candidates for jobs.

In addition to the current project, RCCR is working on ‘1,000 Hours,’ a nonprofit project on child sexual abuse prevention.

The center’s other nonprofit community-based initiatives include recycling used toys, which aims to raise environmental awareness and thrifty practice among children and their parents.

The RCCR director added it is important for society and relevant organizations to help autistic children feel safe and cared for instead of putting them under pressure, particularly under the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years.

Highly vulnerable

COVID-19, according to Huong, bears heavily on even healthy children, and many show signs of stress over the coronavirus as schools are repeatedly forced into closure.

The impact is even much greater on children with autism and mental challenges.

“These children need constant support from instructors at school and the skills may easily slip away if not reinforced on a daily basis,” she said.

An environment which constantly refreshes itself with new activities is also conducive to the children’s well-being and progress, she stressed.

“They find it difficult to attend online classes and experience huge gaps in knowledge, skills, and changes in daily routines,” she added.

According to Huong, autistic children infected with COVID-19 will have a rougher time recovering compared to their able-bodied peers as they cannot follow doctors’ advice or adjust to medical equipment properly.

Their language and communication skills are one of the barriers to their COVID-19 treatment.

Parental loss to COVID-19 is also a devastating blow to these vulnerable children, as no one can understand and take care of them in the way their own parents and relatives do.

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