Autism is a topic that continues to be a crucial social justice issue in Malta – and the director of one of the only specialised schools catering to their specific needs has opened up about the challenges he and his team faces on a day to day basis.
Chris Vassallo, Director of Hand In Hand in Rabat, emphasised that working with children with autism is about adapting to them, and not trying to change them.
Sitting down for an interview on Lovin Daily, Vassallo highlighted the social injustice surrounding those who have the financial means to access proper help and therapy when it comes to autism and other developmental disorders.
As things stand currently, Vassallo noted that “paying for therapy can cost anywhere between €300 a month and up to €2000 to €3000 a month” – something not all parents can afford.
Whilst government structures are in place to help, “you’ll see your therapist once every three months – so that is unrealistic when our kids need 20, 25, 30 hours a week of intensive therapy one-to-one”.
The difference between getting good and bad care is huge, with bad care being up to 80% less effective. And it could mean the difference between a child having the opportunity to have a friend, a lover, find a job or even live independently.
Highlighting the work of Hand In Hand, an organisation that seeks to help children “develop the skills, understanding and confidence to reach their full potential”, Vassallo reflected on the importance of proper, comprehensive help available for these children.
Having a child with autism himself, Vassallo has been an adamant champion for helping children with developmental disorders to be able to reach their full potential and live independent lives.
Having spent years researching the best ways to help their child, Vassallo and his wife ended up discovering Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), a scientific, proven and evidence-based way of helping children with autism.
Through ABA, rather than trying to ‘remove’ or change the child, it instead focuses on offering them the skills required to deal with the extra challenges they would face in life whilst also reaching their full potential.
At Hand In Hand, with the help of 22 therapists, all of whom are specialised in helping these children, they focus entirely on providing not only care for children yet also striving for a societal change in the way we help people with it.
“The first principle when we created Hand In Hand was for Hand In Hand not to exist,” Vassallo explained, noting that the end goal is to have a public, state-wide system in place catering to these needs.
“In all things being equal, our children should be able to access all this therapy while they’re in mainstream [education]”.
Vassallo emphasised how important it was to intervene early to ensure the best results – time is literally of the essence here.
He urged any family that are seeking support in this sector to reach out.
“Ask for help, whether it is Hand In Hand or any of the experts on the island, please ask for help because therapy is about helping kids develop – it is not about changing kids.” Vassallo went on to highlight that “early intervention is the most important [thing] I want to get out”.
It is equally important that teachers and LSEs are able to be provided with the proper training to be able to handle any situation they may be faced with and adapt to the needs of all their students.
As such, this would mean that students with autism would not need to go to centres outside of their mainstream education – instead, these centres would be in their very school.
“It is time we realise as a society that these kids have no fault because autism is still not understood from where it comes from. There is no one at fault and we should help them and adapt to them.”
On average, one in 60 children is born with autism. The rate is particularly increased on islands, so in Malta, the rate is more – and in Gozo, the rate is even higher.
If you wish to get into contact with Hand In Hand, your best option will be to do so via their Facebook Page.
How do you feel about Hand In Hand’s efforts? Let us know in the comments