It’s 3pm and the older students in one classroom, those 12 to 22, are coloring and writing their names.
Babie, 14 with large brown eyes, is of mixed ethnicity and cannot speak. Boss, Fang, Most and 12-year-old Gunner grab crayons from a basket to color in alphabet workbooks. At another table, Mymint, Jane, and Bank require help holding their crayons and pencils.
It’s a typical day at the Khlong Toei Community Center Pre-School for the Mentally Retarded, a place unaware its English name is behind the times. But that’s not a priority for the approximately 40 students with autism or Down syndrome able to leave behind difficult lives in one of the capital’s poorest communities to attend classes suited to their ability.
The school is one of the 10 branches of the Foundation for the Welfare of the Mentally Retarded of Thailand Under the Patronage of Her Majesty the Queen.
What appears rudimentary can help these students, who all live with varying degrees of disability, develop muscles and coordination with activities those in wheelchairs can join as well.
Most talkative is 10-year-old Bew, who on a recent visit was busy writing his name.
“My favorite subject is name writing,” he said, proudly holding up his notebook. “My name is Reungchai Thangchob krub!”
Occasionally, some children find the activity too demanding and cling to a teacher or each other, so Rojana “Kru Pae” Charoensukmongkul, 39 and one of the five running the school, maneuvers them out of the group to relax.
Though the students do not sleep there, it is for many the only place they have to go in the indigent warren of formal and informal housing.
“This is their second home, or for some, their only home, really. We have no days off,” Nopphasorn Prasitphichit, chairman of the school said.
The 39 students currently there range from 2 to 30. There’s a schedule of daily activities such as physical therapy for both fine and gross motor skills. The school helps everyone register for government disability cards, which entitle them to public transportation discounts and access to public healthcare. It’s also easier for cardholders to access public education for special needs people, including vocational training, and allows them to take out loans for tuitions.
On an average day, students arrive at 6:30am to practice meditation and hear lessons about loving the nation, religion and monarchy. Then there’s recess on the playground until flag time at 8am.
“They can sing some or not at all. We just want to turn on the song, so they can know that this is what our national anthem sounds like,” Nopphasorn said.
The children are then divided into age groups to work on their fine and gross motor skills, practicing control of their limbs and stretching. Teachers give special attention to two bedridden girls with HIV, helping them wiggle their hands.
Then there are activities designed to encourage expression and recognition of emotions, as many kids come in with uncontrollable tantrums. The older children, higher-functioning children help by feeding younger kids or teaching them to perform tasks like queue in a line.
“What we’re trying to do is bring the kids into the outside world so they are accepted, rather than being kept in a narrow world inside their house,” Nopphasorn said. “A lot of parents do not know what to do when the find out their child is autistic or has Down syndrome. Some parents won’t tell anyone about their child or their conditions, even refusing to accept it themselves.”
Though the children come from some of the lowest socio-economic rungs in society and the care basic, it is still a rare benefit.
About six in every 1,000 Thais have autism, making for estimated 300,000 children on the spectrum, according to a 2017 report from the Ministry of Health. Of those, the vast majority go untreated.
Only one in 10 receive any mental health care because their parents don’t realize anything is out of the ordinary, since symptoms develop only after a year or two. Parents only concerned with physical development often miss cues such as children who don’t make eye contact.
“Parents misunderstand that development will happen naturally eventually. They will assume a child with delayed speech is just a late talker, and don’t take them to the doctor or health officials,” Boonreung Trireungworawat, secretary of the Ministry of Health wrote in the report, adding that some parents turn to folk remedies. “Parents might try to ward it off by hitting their child’s mouth with a green frog, which has no good effect and bars the kids from getting help.”
Board member of the Parents of Autistic Individuals Group in Bangkok Nattavee Wattanasri, 53, herself has an autistic son, Pon, who is 17 but developmentally about 13.
“When Pon didn’t start talking, the doctor asked me, ‘Do you know what autism is?’” Nattavee said. “I argued with the doctor a lot. I thought he was just a slow talker. Then during the IQ test, I saw that my son wouldn’t respond when called, and I knew something was up.”
Chareeporn Yodfa, president head of the same group’s Phayao branch says it’s worse in the provinces than in Bangkok, as special help is harder to find.
“In outlying provinces it’s very hard to get help or special education. I live in Phayao and have to go to Chiang Mai for my autistic kid,” she said. “In Bangkok, at least there are more opportunities with vocational schools and those CSR programs.”
Although the teachers said most parents are attentive and attend to their children’s special needs, others are neglectful. That’s not to say that all guardians pay the same kind of attention.
“Some guardians will just raise up their child according to their means. If they work outside a lot, this could mean shutting them inside the house all day and not bringing them out into society,” Nattavee, board member of the parents’ network said.
The teachers swap memorable parent-teacher conflicts.
“Once, instead of dropping their child off here, a parent placed their deaf-mute autistic student on a motorcycle taxi,” Kru Pae said. “The kid couldn’t communicate, so the motorcycle went to the wrong school. We were lucky that the other school recognized our school’s uniform and sent’em here.”
Between 4pm and 5pm, most students leave the school to be picked up by parents or a school van.
The proudest moments for the teachers happen when one of two things happen: A student starts earning money and becomes at least partly self-sustaining, or they develop well enough to rejoin a regular school.
Activist Nalutporn Krairiksh, who runs an online journal advocating disability rights, says it’s possible for Thais with autism to live mostly regular lives with adequate special aid and developmental training. Still, she hasn’t heard of any Thais with Down syndrome living independently.
Noot, 30, looks all of 13. She’s been there the longest and is the oldest.
Diagnosed with autism, she earns 9,000 baht a month doing basic cleaning work in a program sponsored by Thai President Foods.
“There’s a few autistic people living independently. They can learn very well but can’t adapt to social situations. For example, they might continue to greet their close friends with a formal sawasdee krub and wai, even after becoming close,” Nalutporn said.
Nopphasorn also created a foundation for students with strong motor skills to earn money by weaving necklaces. She’s decked out in earrings, rings and ropes of beaded necklaces made by Eve, one of the students.
“I love to accessorize and dress up. So I thought about what I would like the kids to do to earn some money,” she said, touching the pile of necklaces around her neck. “Nong Eve is particularly good at this; she can bead four-strand necklaces very precisely.”
Nopphasorn said she has asked the royal foundation for 100,000 baht to launch a project for the kids with the motor skills and coordination to make complicated, intricate jewelry to earn money.
The necklaces sell for a 1,000 baht and up at the school and government events such as the Red Cross Fair, as well as at the school. Nopphasorn boasts that some of the products have been presented to Princess Sirindhorn.
“It’s good, because through this they can add value to their life,” she said.
But for the younger students, being able to join a regular school through impressive development warms their guardians’ hearts.
Pon is currently in vocational school. His mom said he can’t speak very much, but writes, draws and does crafts well.
“Some kids really develop well enough to go to a regular school,” Kru Pae said. “If we can, we send them on their way.”
The Khlong Toei Community Center Pre-School for the Mentally Retarded is willing and able to accept additional students from the Khlong Toei, Silom, Sathorn and Rama III areas. Contact them at Khlong Toei Flat 1 or at 02-2493168 if you know of a disabled child who is not receiving proper care, if you would like to donate to the school or sponsor a child.