Lockdowns affect future of children with special needs


Experts told Lusa that if a lockdown is imposed every time Macau registers an outbreak of COVID-19, the future of children with special needs will be “significantly” affected.

Lam, aged 12, has autistic spectrum disorder. Over the last two and a half years, this local youngster, who attends a special education school, has had classes and support sessions suspended and has spent long periods at home, in front of the computer, learning from a distance.

Contact with the school space and qualified therapists, part of a routine necessary for the development of children with special needs, was interrupted with the appearance of COVID-19.

It happened more than once: at the end of January 2020Lam was out of classes for three months and another three with distance learning; and the following year, in September, the closure of institutions was ordered following two new infections.

Macau adopted a partial lockdown, more recently following the latest pandemic outbreak, which infected 1,821 people, most of them asymptomatic, and caused six deaths, all of them elderly with chronic diseases.

Like Mainland China, the city follows the ‘dynamiczero COVID’ policy, imposing restrictions on population mobility and several rounds of massive testing. And for Lam, that meant finishing the school year four weeks early.

“Everything stopped,the school stopped, the [therapy] centres closed, and we joined some classes organised by associations, but which are not professionals,” his mother, Ruby Hui, told Lusa. She had to fulfillthe responsibilities of teacher and therapist “so that there is no setback” in the child’s development.

Despite assuming that “without face-to-face [professional] follow-up, progress is difficult” for any child with special needs, MsHui believes that for younger children, the situation could have more serious implications.

At the age of 12, Lam has already gone through the phase where more qualified assistance is needed, explains Ruby Hui, noting that, between the ages of two and six, the family spent every weekend in Hong Kong in therapy sessions—treatments that are still in short supply in Macau.

With the imposition of quarantines on those who travel between Macau and Hong Kong, the consultation of specialists from the neighbouring region – or their coming to Macau – did not return to normal, a fact that led lawmaker Ella Lei, to confront the Government, in July 2020, about the shortage of speech therapists in Macau, at a time when professionals from Hong Kong, hired to “mitigate the shortage,” were unable to travel to the city.

Two years have passed, and little has changed. Anyone arriving in Macau from Hong Kong is required to undergo a seven-day quarantine at a local hotel.

The Association Promoting Special Education for Students with Special Education Needs has proposed that local authorities turn to mainland China for treatment or acquisition of assistive devices, such as wheelchairs or walkersfor children with physical disabilities.

Devices that “are not produced in Macau and have a very high cost,” the vice-president of this association, Alex Chao, told Lusa, noting that there was no response from the Government.

“Children have rapid physical development in childhood and if they do not have the best therapeutic equipment (…) during this period, this will have a great impact on physical health problems”, MrChao stresses.

Alex Chao also draws attention to the consequences that can appear in children with special needs who remain confined at home: “Often, stopping too long, causes them to have greater psychological fluctuations and that emotions and behaviour take on forms outside the regular pattern.”

During this latest outbreak, for example, the population was advised to stay at home, and parks and other public spaces were closed. And these are children “who need community activities and human contact in order to communicate and progress,” explains Chao.

In addition, the lockdown has accentuated the connection of children to screens, whether for leisure or distance classes, adds Joana Pereira, primary school teacher at the Portuguese School of Macau (EPM) 

 “Weare providing situations in which we force them to spend even more time clinging to this type of electronic equipment, and I think that, from the point of view of personal and social development, it is very emasculating”, says the Portuguese teacher, with training and experiencein the field of special education.

Recently, Health Bureau director Alvis Lo admitted during a press conference that “in the future, a new outbreak may arise,” which may lead authorities to re-impose restrictions on mobility.