What I’ve Learnt From Working With Special Needs Children
by Quek Hong Shin
In late 2021, I worked on a collaborative art project with 8-year old boys, Rizq Nawfal Hambril and Qays Naushad Hambril. GROW, the inclusive arts mentorship programme by Superhero Me had a simple brief – to work with Rizq, who has quadriplegic cerebral palsy and his brother Qays on a story writing project that will culminate in a presentation at Apple Orchard Road.
I had no idea what the final product would be. It may seem counterintuitive to partake on a journey with no clear destination in mind. However, based on my experience interacting with children, one has to “go with the flow”. I wanted the programme to start with an exploration of ideas, and as much as possible, led by the children.
Here are some things I have learnt from working with special needs children:
Creative play can be empowering. It builds confidence and is a way of self-expression. It also encourages children to use their imagination and creativity to solve problems. Disguising work as play, children unwittingly contribute their ideas that will help the development of the project.
So what better way to kickstart the project with play. I designed a simple questionnaire where the boys chose the genre, setting and the main character traits.
We moved on to play with LEGO bricks and I encouraged the boys to literally build the characters. It was rather tricky as Rizq is non-verbal, whereas younger brother Qays is neurotypical. The last thing I wanted was for Qays to drown out Rizq’s voice. Thankfully, Qays was considerate and always turned to Rizq to make decisions together. I realised that playing games is a great way to teach children about rules, to take turns and the concept of fair play. In turn, it helps to lighten the mood and to build rapport.
Communication is key
I had to learn how to effectively communicate with Rizq. At home and in school, Rizq uses a Pragmatic Organisation Dynamic Display (PODD) book to communicate. His mother, Hidayah, was always present at the sessions to assist. We also used assistive tech, where a digital version of the PODD book is uploaded onto the tablet, and Rizq hits a button with his hand when the crosshairs land on a particular word or visual.
One can imagine how tedious it is to get answers from a non-verbal individual using this method. So it is important to be patient and let the child know that their opinions matter, even if it takes a while to elicit responses.
Create a safe space
I remember an occasion in the past when I had to do a workshop with a group of children, who were mostly either on the autism spectrum or had ADHD. The assigned room was filled with bean bags and toys. It was a bad idea. The children were rolling around the room and playing with the toys. I was yelling like a mad man, trying to get all of them to sit down. The lesson learnt from this episode was to use a space with distractions kept to the minimum. For some children with autism, their way of familiarising an environment involves running around the space and touching everything they can see.
A place with familiarity will put the child at ease. Depending on the needs of the child, remove physical barriers. Simple things like adjusting the angle of devices and the lights can make a big difference. My sessions with Rizq and Qays were conducted in the comfort of their own home, with the television turned off so that it was conducive for us.
Adjust and adapt
About halfway through the intended sessions, the idea of animating the story emerged, as the boys loved to watch cartoons. None of us had much experience creating animated clips, and before we knew it, we were dealt with another blow – we could not use the characters built with LEGO bricks due to trademark issues.
Determined to make it fun despite the challenges, I suggested using non-toxic, light, air-dry modelling clay to remake the characters. Rizq could help too, by rolling and pressing the clay into shapes. This helps to train his fine motor skills at the same time. I also searched for a stop motion app that was the easiest to pick up.
Although I could refine and smoothen out the clay models made by the boys, I did not. I felt it is important to see that they were handmade by children, and that art does not always have to be polished end products.
I tried to get Rizq involved in every stage of production – from storywriting, character design, recording of sound effects to the capturing of individual frames for the animated sequence with the help of a jelly bean switch. Qays is always around to cheer him on.
The final video may be rough around the edges, but it showcased the wild imagination and creative spark that both Rizq and Qays possess.
Overall, collaborating with special needs children requires a positive mindset, patience, flexibility, and using techiniques to not just accommodate, but amplify their unique abilities.
Watch the stop motion animation, Everything is Okay with Friends!:
About Quek Hong Shin
Hong Shin is a Singaporean picture book author and illustrator. He has illustrated several picture books and his work has been shortlisted twice for the Hedwig Anuar Children's Book Award. His book The Incredible Basket, published by Epigram Books, was the winner of Best Children’s Book at the 2019 Singapore Book Awards.
Catch Hong Shin in this session: