If you haven’t already been, Sri Lanka is one of the most beautiful and glorious places in the world, and I would highly recommend a visit (although just like Pembrokeshire, do try and keep this little secret to yourself)!  And in true Sri Lankan style, I’m being thoroughly spoilt by lots of fabulous people.  I feel so lucky.

I’ve met up with Marianne, and we’re staying with her son, daughter in law and grand-daughter who live in Colombo.  Marianne Simpson is one of the trustees of The Owl Centre charity, and also a retired special needs teacher.  She’s a gem, and we’ve known each other since 2009 when we worked together in Vietnam.  We were posted with VSO to a special needs teacher training college, and my particular role was to run workshops for parents of children with autism.  Since then, we and other Owl Centre clinicians have been back to Vietnam most years to train special needs teachers working in partnership with Saigon Children‘s charity.  It’s fun, and a very popular part of being an Owl Centre clinician.

Marianne and I in Vietnam

The idea for Sri Lanka is to try and replicate the Vietnam project.  We want to find a children’s centre, rehab centre or set of schools where we can set-up annual training courses run through the Owl Centre Charity and train various groups in evidence-based interventions.  We’ve connected with a few places already and we’re making some progress, as well as some random, comedy moments.  

Marianne and I careering around Colombo in a tuk-tuk, clinging on for dear life, accompanied by fancy disco lights and the loudest Bollywood tracks you can think of!

On arriving at the first centre this week, Sunflower Village, which was the place I worked in 1994, we learnt it had changed into an Army Base!  It was a little scary to be greeted by men with smart uniforms and guns, and we got marched down to the head office for inspection.  Luckily, they warmed to us and showed us around what was my home for 12 months all those years ago.  It still had that warmth (both literally and metaphorically) and I had a warm glow in my heart by being back there. Here is the house I used to live in and the magical view from the bedroom window:

Me, aged 19 with some Sunflower Village Children; Dasika and Nilushi (heart melt).

Anyway, very sadly, not a place for us to partner up with for obvious reasons.  The next day we went to The Tree House school which was much more promising, and the head teacher was very keen and enthusiastic and is keen for us to collaborate.  The main stumbling block there was that the school tended to use an ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis) approach.  ABA is used widely in Asia and America for children with autism, but is rather controversial in the UK and heavily debated and I know this will put many of the Owl Centre clinicians off – I’ve plucked some of the reasons for the controversy from my brain:  

  • It is not thought to be functional as relatively random skills are taught, for instance, from a speech and language perspective, a child might be drilled to say a ‘b’ sound, but for what reason would this ever be necessary if the child has no intentional communication skills?
  • It is based on a reward system i.e. you do something and receive a reward.  Many people aren’t comfortable with this style and some verbal autistic adults have spoken out about how pressurised they felt about this method as a child, some even mentioning PTSD.
  • It is very repetitive and therefore not necessarily fun or engaging.

My personal view, for what it’s worth, and those who know me will know I’m not staunch about much really, is this…  I do not practice ABA but I have seen some children benefit from it when they are first introduced to it and in my experience, usually for short periods of time.  There are other interventions, less structured of course, that will focus more on functional skills and engagement, and these have to be implemented first or at the very least, concurrently.  The most important thing is that a child is happy and content.  A happy child will want to engage and learn, an unhappy, stressed or anxious child will not despite their very best efforts to try.  Anyhow, I know this will open an autism ‘can of worms’ so I’m going to move swiftly on…

We have also made contact with a third and fourth centre but haven’t managed to get a date in yet.  Things take a little while to nail down here and although we have only had two concrete visits, I think we’re doing well. We have some fabulous weekend plans and then back to the networking next week.  Watch this space!  

Sunflower Village’s sign. It was pretty obvious something rather dramatic had happened to our beloved centre.