Following his teacher’s instructions, 7-year-old Eita slid out of his chair, tidied it up and then — in front of his fellow group members and teachers — said a few words about his performance during an after-school programming class he attended in April.
Eita and two other boys were learning the basics of coding by collapsing blocks in a computer game.
“This game, it was really interesting. Eita Ide,” he said with confidence.
Although this scene may not seem exceptional, it takes Eita, who displays some traits of autism, more effort to communicate his thoughts and emotions.
Eita attends the recently opened Kid’s Tech in Tokyo’s Ota Ward, one of a growing number of cram schools catering to children with developmental disabilities amid a growing need for such assistance.
Operators of such after-school cram schools hope that skillfully designed educational programs with increased teacher praise and goals developed to promote the social skills of children with disabilities will help them actively participate in society.
Lessons at Kid’s Tech are designed for children with pervasive development disorder, a term describing a spectrum of developmental disorders that cause problems with social interaction, communication, inflexible behavior or autism.
The school helps children tackle their behavioral and communication problems. Children of the same age and with traits of similar disorders are grouped together.
“Such an environment helps them learn how to communicate and work in teams,” Takeshi Sumiyama, president of Kid’s Tech operator Plus Innovation Inc. said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.
“Society has been focusing on the children’s weaknesses,” Sumiyama said, referring to prevalent social-interaction difficulties and a tendency in people with autistic spectrum disorder to engage in repetitive behavior.
“But many possess a natural gift — many such children demonstrate enhanced ability to maintain intense focus on details and things that interest them and are highly creative,” he said.
Children with autism have exceptional abilities, including above-average math skills tied to patterns of activation in a particular area of their brains, according to a study by researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine.
Plus Innovation, based in Hyogo Prefecture, operates two schools. One is in Tokyo, which opened in March, and another is in Amagasaki, Hyogo, which also offers programming classes for children like Eita.
Kid’s Tech enables its users to benefit from the government’s social welfare grants, which cover a large part of the tuition cost and are guaranteed by the Child Welfare Act. The law was revised in 2012 to strengthen support for children with disabilities and included detailed guidelines aimed at improving services offered at places where children spend time after school to help foster their independence.
The number of children in Japan with developmental disabilities is still unclear, but the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry speculates it might be increasing.
According to the ministry’s 2011 data, of 215,000 children with disabilities of all sorts, 152,000 have been diagnosed with intellectual disabilities that include developmental disorders.
But a survey conducted by the ministry in 2012 of elementary and junior high school students across the country showed a significant number of children who haven’t been diagnosed with any intellectual disorder had problems studying. Of 52,272 cases the surveyed schools reported, an estimated 6.5 percent of children attending regular classes had significant learning or behavioral problems, indicating that two students per class might have a suspected disability. It was the first nationwide survey conducted on a large scale in all prefectures excluding Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, which were severely affected by the March 2011 disasters.
Sumiyama lamented that many after-school classes operate without specially designed programs or consideration for such children’s conditions.
“Children with developmental disabilities are often put into one room with those with other disabilities and end up watching TV and eating snacks,” he said.
He pointed out that without adequate support, many of them eventually refuse to go to school, struggle with adapting themselves to the school environment or are picked on by bullies, which stops them from pursuing higher education or a career.
Children coming to Kid’s Tech can learn the basics of computer programming included in a mandatory program to be introduced to elementary schools from 2020 under the education ministry’s guidelines.
Sumiyama said that in 10 or 15 years, many of the jobs that people with autism tend to choose, such as factory line or data input work — which don’t require communicating with coworkers — will likely disappear.
By acquiring programming skills, the children can turn their disabilities into strengths, which would help them secure jobs in such sectors like programming, database and systems engineering, he said.
Eita’s mother, Mika Ide, told The Japan Times she was grateful that her son is given a chance to learn something useful for his future career, adding that she is seeing her son become more interested in learning.
“I’m looking forward to seeing his further progress, step by step, over the long run,” Ide said.
Tokyo-based Kaien, a company that also assists disabled people with finding employment, runs cram schools with programs focusing on helping children build their self-esteem.
Sanae Iijima of the company’s education unit explained that the lack of confidence in people with developmental disabilities often leads to struggles with securing jobs.
“Our program is to help children acquire skills useful in building their careers, such as communication skills, the ability to organize their work and to boost self-confidence,” Iijima said.
The firm runs classes where children can have a glimpse into working environments through its work-experience program.
Children are also taught how to plan and prioritize their work effectively as the lack of such skills contributes to failures during the job search as disabled people struggle with preparing documents for recruitment processes, Iijima said.
At Kaien’s school, children learn how to cooperate and communicate with their future colleagues in an office based on their position, or with customers, as well as how to report their work progress, Iijima added.
In 2013, Kaien opened Teens, a cram school that enables elementary, junior high and high school students with developmental disabilities to benefit from public financial aid. The school’s five branches in Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture have about 400 attendees in total.
Iijima said that many children coming to Teens are in the “gray zone,” meaning they have not been diagnosed with any disorder, are unaware of their often hardly noticeable disabilities and are likely to face hurdles in their adult lives.
Since 2011 the firm has also been offering programming classes, which are not subject to the governmental aid.
Iijima praised the government’s recent efforts to enhance support for children showing symptoms of other developmental disorders at public schools.
“But I’d like the government to speed up work on support for college students” who haven’t been covered under Japan’s welfare program, she added. “The (child welfare) law was established based on the premise that disabled children would not pursue higher education. But now it’s a natural thing.”
She also lamented that despite the relatively increasing availability of similar services, developmental disorders are still considered taboo in society, causing parties concerned to refuse to accept such help.
She recalled a case in which a school denied cooperation and rejected the possibility that any of the school’s students may have a developmental disability.
Kaien plans to increase the number of its facilities and establish partnerships across the country to respond to the needs in other regions where access to such assistance is limited.