Mother forgives teachers in class trip death

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The parents of drowned autistic boy hope his special education school (one of the few in Vietnam) will remain open in the wake of tragedy


A class at the Bim Bim Kindergarten, for autistic children, in Ho Chi Minh City's Binh Thanh District

Nguyen Dinh Huy Cuong remembers stopping to buy vermicelli soup for his six-year-old on April 25.

"That was his favorite breakfast," said Cuong, a silversmith in Ho Chi Minh City.

Cuong dropped his son, Nguyen Dinh Nhat Huy, off at the An Phuc Kindergarten in District 3. Due to Huy's autism, his father relied on the staff there to feed and care for him.

He had no idea it would be the last time he'd ever see his son again.

Later that day, Huy boarded a bus with 25 other autistic students and traveled to Dam Sen Park in District 11 for a day of fun.

At 3:30 p.m., Huy's teacher placed a desperate call to Huy's mother, Quach Ngoc Han, and informed her that her son was missing.

The couple immediately rushed to the park and asked Dam Sen Park employees to conduct a full search for Huy. His mother recalls being shocked and horrified when the park officials refused to announce Huy's disappearance over their loudspeaker system"”it was their lunch hour.

According to a letter filed by the disgruntled parents to the District Prosecutors' Office, an announcement was finally made after lunch hour ended.

The couple then called the local fire brigade and asked them to search for their son.

The desperate couple spent a sleepless night searching the empty park. The following morning, Dam Sen officials informed them that they had found the child and he was in "critical condition."

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Cuong was asked to accompany them to An Binh Hospital in an ambulance.

During the ride, Cuong sat next to a body wrapped up on a stretcher. He soon discovered that he was headed for a hospital morgue, under police orders.

The body lying next to him was his son.

The bereaved parents say they do not want to file a lawsuit or demand compensation from the kindergarten. They just want an official investigation into the circumstances surrounding Huy's death and determine whether park officials should be held responsible.

"I know my son. He runs really fast. It was an unexpected accident and the teachers did their best. Even parents can't keep track of their children sometimes," Han, the mother, told Thanh Nien Weekly.

Han said people in the city should help share the difficulties that the city's few special schools face in caring for autistic students.

"Such schools are rare and can't accommodate the increasing number of autistic children," she said. "I don't want it to be shut."

Following the tragedy, An Phuc Kindergarten did temporarily close.

"We are totally devastated and have yet to decide whether or not to reopen," said Vo Phan My Soan, who was among the teachers accompanying the class to Dam Sen Park on April 25.

Autism alert

Parents with autistic children like Han have called for better public awareness and more investment in specialized care.

Meanwhile, experts warn that low public awareness has lead to major problems in caring for and protecting children suffering from the condition. At the same time, more and more children are being diagnosed with autism in Vietnam, according to experts in the field.

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that manifests itself during the first three years of life and is characterized by impaired social interaction, problems with verbal and non-verbal communication and restricted, repetitive behavior.

Vietnam does not maintain official statistics on autistic children but schools, hospitals and parents have reported a rise in the condition.

"Unofficial statistics show an average of one autistic child per 200 children in Vietnam," said Lam Tuong Vu, chairman of the Hanoi Autism Children Club.

He said that autism awareness in Vietnam only really began in the last few years. Vu attributed the rise in cases to a correction of wrongful diagnoses.

Only a few years ago, he said, many autistic children were thought to suffer from "general mental disorders."

Dr. Quach Thuy Minh of the Central Children's Hospital said the number of autistic children admitted to the hospital has increased from an average of 300 a year in the 1990s to 1,000 in 2009 and 1,800 in 2010.

A report from the Hanoi Education Department found that autism represents 30 percent of documented learning disorders.

"The number of children and people with autistic conditions continues to rise in every nation and in every racial, ethnic and social group," United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said at a meeting convened for World Autism Day, on April 2. "Although the recognition of autistic conditions among the scientific, health and care communities is improving, public awareness remains low."

A selfless few

Psychologist Ngo Xuan Diep, a lecturer at the HCMC University of Social Sciences and Humanities said that more should be done to raise autism awareness in the city.

Diep praised Han's decision not to sue the teachers.

"There should be sympathy for these teachers," he said. "Many autistic children are extremely active. They would do whatever they want and are not aware of danger. Special education teachers work very hard to take care of them."

Diep, who has worked as a consultant for many special education schools throughout Vietnam, said there aren't enough educational facilities to care for the nation's autistic children.

The psychologist, who has ten years of experience working with autistic children, described Vietnam's few special education providers as hard-working and self-sacrificing.

Truong Thi Hong Ha, the principal of Bim Bim Kindergarten for Autistic Children in HCMC's Binh Thanh District, said that few people want to open such schools because they are not profitable.

Instead, she described the business as a charitable act in a desperate educational situation.

"There aren't enough schools for autistic children," she said. "Time waits for no one and these children are growing up without a suitable education."

The Bim Bim Kindergarten currently provides scholarships to a number of poorer families whose children suffer from autism.

Ha opened her school in 2009.

Today, roughly 30 autistic children attend Bim Bim. She hopes to open more facilities, in neighboring provinces, in the future.

During a recent visit to one of the classrooms, teacher Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong fed four-year-old Minh Khoa, as he cried and refused to swallow.

In the middle of feeding, Khoa ran to a mattress and lay down. Phuong patiently picked up the boy, sat him in a chair and resumed efforts.

Nearby, a five-year-old boy lay across another and a teacher rushed to separate them.

"They do whatever they want. We have to help them with everything, including personal sanitation and preventing them from hurting each other or even themselves," Phuong said.

Despite the challenge, she has no plans to seek an easier job.

"It gives me immense happiness to watch them grow and improve," she said.

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