Pham Thi Kim Tam and other parents opened a non-profit school for autistic children in Ho Chi Minh City in 2008 out of desperation.
“If there is a better facility, we'll happily close our school and send our children there. We had no choice but to teach our children ourselves,” she said.
Vietnam has no public school dedicated to educating autistic children and a lack of qualified private facilities have been a long-term concern for many parents.
The issue was brought to the fore again this week after a Thanh Nien reporter spent two weeks working undercover at the Anh Vuong Special Primary School. Using a hidden camera, the reporter captured footage of the routine use of torture and abuse at the unlicensed school for disabled children.
Among the horrors, a teacher identified only as Lam, was filmed grabbing a boy by the hair and repeatedly ramming his head into a metal door before leaving him lying on the ground.
Van, a nursemaid, was filmed flogging the same boy with a coat hanger while she dragged him toward a staircase.
The school was shut down just a few hours after the exposé was published and police are investigating the crimes as well as the failure of local education authorities to manage the facility.
Ignoring a growing problem
Many families with autistic children choose to migrate from outlying provinces (which lack services for the developmentally disabled) into big cities like Hanoi and HCMC just for the purpose of sending them to specialized schools.
As the recent investigation revealed, however, many these urban schools lack any professional qualifications in spite of the fact that they charge hefty tuition.
Nguyen Thanh Tam, director of the HCMC Integrated Education Support Center for Disabled People, said the city has 16 public schools that accept autistic students.
However, these schools add autistic and disabled students into general education classes, he said.
“There is no public school that provides specialized education for autistic children.”
Meanwhile, Tam expressed grave concerns about the tendency of private special education centers to employ unqualified staff.
“Some have opened schools for autistic children after training their staff for a few days," she said. "Many of these facilities lack a clear understanding of their students' condition.”
Another problem is that many public schools lack teachers who are trained in providing special education, he said.
There are no official statistics on the number of autistic children in Vietnam, but anecdotal reports imply a rapid rise in the condition.
A study from the National Hospital of Pediatrics found that the number of children diagnosed with autism at the Hanoi-based hospital's Physiotherapy Department in 2007 was 50 times higher than in 2000.
In a Hanoi district, 10 percent of 733 disabled children were diagnosed with the developmental disorder, according to the study which was released at a recent conference in Hanoi dedicated to the care and education for autistic children.
Meanwhile, in Ho Chi Minh City, 324 autistic children received treatment at local hospitals in 2008, a 160-fold increase from 2000--a year when city hospitals treated just two patients diagnosed with the disorder.
Last year, Tran Thanh Huong repatriated to Vietnam from Canada with her husband and their two autistic children and was shocked by the lack of educational resources.
“There is no training course for parents of autistic children, even though their numbers are increasing rapidly,” she said.
In Canada, each autistic child is chaperoned by a teacher as they learn to play with others.
“Parents are also given financial support from the state and free counselling services. Sometimes, people came to our house to take care of our children for free,” she said.
Tran Thi Kim Thanh, deputy director of the HCMC Department of Education and Training, admitted that the city has not met the educational demands of its autistic children.
Tam, the mother who opened her own special school, said the government should develop a special education curriculum and supervise the teaching of autistic children.
She believes the government should ensure these teachers receive proper training and adequate salaries.
“The city has special schools for children who are blind or deaf, why is there no school dedicated to children with autism?”