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Brain science shows why children learn differently: Expert

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Occupational therapist says expressions of judgment or criticism can give autistic children a great deal of stress

The brain of a child with autism is similar to a war veteran's. Both have a heightened sensitivity of things around them, such as facial expressions, because of how their brains are wired.

Their behaviour, said world-renowned occupational therapist and teacher Kim Barthel, can be explained by a part of the brain called the amygdala, which takes in information and determines if anything is a threat.

For a child with autism, facial expressions sending cues of judgment, criticism or discrimination hit the brain with a great amount of stress, said the Canadian therapist.

"For a veteran coming back from war who has had a tremendous amount of trauma, he will become sensitive to the same face," she said.

"One was born that way, and one got that way by experience," said Ms Barthel, 56, who was in Singapore last month to conduct training for professionals in the early childhood and special education sectors.

Ms Barthel, who is also a consultant and author, was in town for a conference on Nov 27 organised by social service organisation Awwa for overseas experts to speak about inclusive practices.

About 600 people attended the event.

Awwa runs programmes for people with special needs, including a school for students with multiple disabilities from ages seven to 18.

It also runs an inclusive pre-school, Kindle Garden, where children with special needs learn with other children.

Ms Barthel, who holds degrees in occupational therapy and neuroscience, said people with special needs are neurodiverse learners, referring to the idea that conditions such as autism or cerebral palsy are the result of a variation in the human genome.

Thus they learn and process information differently, she said.

The United Nations has recognised neurodiversity - a term that has been in use since 2003 - as a form of diversity, just like race. But this does not mean that people should be placed in black or white categories, and that those with neurological differences should be kept apart from typically developing peers, she added.

"In reality it is a continuum," she said. Everyone learns differently - some learn by listening, (others by) doing or watching, she added.

Hence even those who learn differently should be included in the classroom, she said, pointing out that inclusion is not the same as integration, or placing a child with special needs in a mainstream school and expecting him to fit in.

Singapore's own example of inclusive learning is Kindle Garden, she said, where 25 out of 85 children have special needs, and all of them get a customised education plan.

"The children themselves don't notice who's different and who isn't - that's inclusion," she added. This is good not just for those with special needs, but also for others because it builds values such as tolerance, compassion and equality, she said.