Managing Learning Difficulties in Tokyo

Education Families - June 1st, 2007
Building blocks

The building blocks to a brighter future

by Danielle Tate-Stratton 

Ask just about any parent-to-be if they are hoping for a boy or a girl, and they will smile and reply, “as long as it is healthy, I don’t mind at all.” Luckily, for the vast majority of parents, that wish is granted and their little bundle of joy comes into the world complete with ten fingers, ten toes, and no special needs. For families dealt the additional challenge of a child who is perhaps developmentally delayed or falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, it can be a stag­gering blow to the family, even if they are still living at ‘home’—looking for answers and support, families often work with doctors, therapists, schools, and par­ent groups to allow their children to grow, learn, and live to the best of their potential. Of course, in a coun­try like the US or Canada, where support services are provided and often paid for by the government, and schooling for any child is a given not a maybe, par­ents have easy access to these services in their native languages—a huge benefit to everyone! What then, is a family to do if their child is either born with autism here in Japan, or the family of a developmentally de­layed child is required to relocate to Japan for work?

According to Kelly McBurney, who holds a Bachelor of Special Educa­tion degree and is working towards her Masters in In­clusive Education in Au­tism, the initial outlook for families in Japan, espe­cially non-Japanese fami­lies, can often be quite bleak. While a growing, and increasingly outspo­ken, expat community here in Tokyo means that steps are being taken to improve services for families, Kelly says that, at least for the moment, the serv­ices here can’t even begin to be com­pared to those in America, and she regularly sees or hears about families who need to take their children back to the US for diagnosis, never mind treatment.

With the pool of international schools limited here in Tokyo, and no governing body to ensure that eve­ryone is treated as fairly as they should be, many fami­lies run into difficulty finding a school that will accept their child, even if they have only fairly mild delays. Even the schools that do take on pupils with challeng­es often put down more roadblocks than would even perhaps be legal in your home country. For instance, some schools require that families provide their child’s own Learning Support Assistants (LSAs). Many LSAs come from the Philippines, and luckily, Manila offers good training, yet for families, this can be a large fi­nancial burden. Besides often having to provide room and board for their LSA, the family must also pay an entire year’s salary to the school; money that is then re-distributed to the LSA throughout the year.

services here can’t even begin to be compared
to those in America,… families… need to take
their children back to the US for diagnosis,
never mind treatment.

Luckily, all is not bleak and discouraging here in Tokyo. For those who are Japanese (and speak Japa­nese), there is at least one Government-run disability center offering programs and therapists. However, while it’s a good start, Kelly sites insufficiencies in the programs—no goals and targets are set, and at the end of the sessions, parents are often the ones writing the progress reports. It is also unavailable to families where there is no Japanese spoken.

For those who speak English, Kelly has begun of­fering programs to fill the void, and is hoping that her programs, in conjunction with other new initiatives such as support group billing itself as being for ex­ceptional parents run by TELL (the Tokyo English Life Line—www.telljp.com) will begin to provide much needed support for parents in Tokyo.

Upon her arrival from Australia only a few months ago, Kelly began contacting schools to see if there might be space in any of their special education de­partments, and was shocked to find out just how much help was potentially needed. Not wanting to become tied down to any one school, Kelly has begun offering contracted services to schools and parents, and slowly, they are starting to see the benefits of her work. Kelly works using a variety of educational approaches to teach skills such as sensory processing, independence and self-organization, management of challenging be­haviors, and academic and group learning skills.

Kelly also ensures that she tailors her programs to families, saying that, “a key concept of my interven­tion is ‘individualization’, or tailoring intervention to suit the individual child and the family’s needs.” Through her work as an Autism Therapist and Edu­cational Consultant, Kelly is able to work hand-in-hand with schools and families, liaising with oc­cupational thera­pists, main teachers, speech therapists, and parents. When developing  a  pro­gram, Kelly is care­ful to set concrete goals, writes regular progress reports, and always plans for success. As she says, “errorless teaching the first time means that our children can learn the correct respons­es and steps without anxiety.”

While she works mainly with children referred to her through the schools and via word of mouth, Kelly is also starting to offer social skills classes for children with high-functioning autism, aspergers, and other developmental delays. The classes, which will have a maximum size of three children per group, will work on social skills, emotions training, building peer relationships, and the use of visual support to help in self-organization and self-regulation. Children will be grouped according to their learning styles, temperaments, and age—being in small groups helps children to build friendships and maximize their learning.

Thanks to concentrated efforts by the expat community here in Tokyo, schools are slowly improving, and dialogue is starting up in a culture traditionally very hesitant to speak about disability. Despite these promising improvements, change is proving to be frustratingly slow, and Kelly still serves to bridge rather a large gap between the care required and the care received. If you think that your family could benefit from one of the services Kelly offers, contact her for an individual consultation by email at  k_mcburney@hotmail.com.