Learning Disabled in the Capital

Many expats in Beijing have trouble choosing which school their children should attend; after all, there are so many choices, each with quality teachers and gleaming facilities. But for a smaller group of expats, those whose children have a learning disability of some kind, it can sometimes seem as if there are no choices at all. “Three years out, and we’re still not sure we’ve found the right school for our child, who doesn’t quite seem to fit in anywhere,” said one parent of a special needs child, who asked not to be identified.

Increasingly, however, expat kids with learning disabilities or disorders such as autism are able to find a quality education, tailored to their specific needs, right here in Beijing. Parents of such kids still have to advocate for their children, but they no longer find themselves banging on closed doors, as they might have in the past. And there are more learning disabled (LD) kids here than you might think: “At WAB, approximately 10 percent of our high school population has some sort of learning support,” notes Tanya Farrol, a special needs teacher at the Western Academy of Beijing. WAB has “an inclusive admissions policy,” she explains, so special needs children are considered on a case-by-case basis, according to whether the school has the resources to support any given child.

A Range of Learning Options
Just outside of Beijing Riviera, on the southern edge of Shunyi, children come and go at Care for Children, a little-known Beijing resource for special needs kids. Manager Meryl Bailey refers to the facility as a one-stop shop for parents. “Before we came along, parents had to run all over town. They’d go to the hospital, which can provide a diagnosis but can’t treat the child. Or they’d find a therapist, and then the therapist would leave the country.” Care for Children helps families find the help their kids need. “That’s been a relief for some families - not having to figure out what the next step is.”
Care for Children’s services are two-pronged. They run a school for children whose disabilities are too severe for mainstream schools to accommodate. “Some of our students are severely physically disabled; some are non-verbal or autistic,” says Bailey. So far, she notes, they haven’t had to turn away any children.

In addition to their school, Care for Children opened a clinic in April 2009 with the goal of helping children “who are enrolled in mainstream schools, but are having sensory issues, need counseling, or simply aren’t functioning well at their grade level.” The clinic’s five Western therapists, each of whom specializes in a different area, work together to coordinate care for these children.

Care for Children works closely with the learning support staff at each of the international schools to develop individual education plans (IEPs) tailored to each child’s specific needs. They also refer parents to specialists such as speech therapist Kristen Evans, who runs a private practice out of her house in Beijing, and sees the same range of issues here that she previously treated in stateside schools. Here in Beijing, Evans has worked with children whose diagnoses include Asperger’s, autism, ADD, dyspraxia, dyslexia, Down Syndrome and more.

Getting Help for Your Child
Still, say many parents of learning disabled and special needs children, their kids keep falling through the cracks. How can you ensure your LD child gets the support he needs?

Care for Children staff are often asked for assistance by parents of kids who’ve been turned away by mainstream schools. Their therapists can run tests to determine the severity of the child’s problem and find the appropriate support services. After thorough testing, says Bailey, they are able to work together with the mainstream school: “Some schools do not have the resources to support these children appropriately, but many are willing to let us work with them to ensure that all a child’s needs are met.”

WAB’s learning support staff  have worked extensively with Care for Children to develop IEPs for their special needs kids. “At WAB, we mainly have LD kids who have mild dyslexia, but we also see Asperger’s, behavioral disorders... The question we ask in each case is, ‘What can we support?’” says Farrol. Students with mild learning disabilities receive in-class support. For children with more issues, “We have a pull-out program where they receive one-on-one support,” she says.

Evans, herself the parent of a special needs child, encourages parents to communicate directly with learning support personnel and candidly discuss the types of support and accommodations their child needs. “There are some international schools which certainly have the desire to welcome children with learning support needs, but when investigated fully, do not actually have the infrastructure in place to adequately support the child’s needs,” says Evans, so parents “really need to understand their child well to locate an appropriate school.” Once your child has been accepted to a given school, Evans recommends you closely monitor your child’s program, to ensure that any promised interventions or accommodations, such as optimal seating, testing accommodations, use of a keyboard or visual supports, are being implemented. 

Moving to Beijing?
Should you consider moving to Beijing if you have a special needs child? It depends on the child, says Farrol. A child with a severe case of autism needs structure, she explains. “So working in two or three languages, along with all of the cultural clashes, can be very confusing.” Physical disabilities can also be problematic. For example, a child with cerebral palsy might have trouble using public toilets. Carefully consider your child’s psychological and physical limitations before making the move.

“Moving causes stress for most kids,” says Devon Stafford, an elementary counselor at the International School of Beijing, “and stress impairs how we learn. Even kids who never had issues before might need a ‘boost’ from their school’s learning support team. And that’s okay.”

Get your child diagnosed at home, where there are more specialists and more opportunities for testing. If you’re American, the US government pays for testing through the Board of Education. WAB’s Farrol advises you to bring records from your old school, along with teacher recommendations on how to support your child in class. “You don’t want to simply tell the school ‘this is the problem,’ but also ‘this is what has worked in the past.’ Because every kid is different.”

Speech therapist Evans agrees that the more severe the disability, the more difficult it may become to meet that child’s needs here. Still, she says, “I have seen families creatively utilize local resources and design very personalized therapeutic and academic interventions for their children, enabling them to remain in an international setting and feel confident that their child’s needs are being adequately met.” 

Bailey advises, “Work with a school that has an established learning support system. There are schools here that are identifying learning disabilities as important.” If your child needs an IEP, contact Care for Children before you arrive for help putting one together.

Don’t let your child’s disability keep you from considering Beijing.  Bailey says, “Come to Beijing, but come with different criteria. Consider this issue on your first visit, and find the individuals who will help you when things are tough.”