Bhutan had been ‘calling’ to me for a while. It seemed to pop up in my world on a regular basis. Whether it was on TV, a social media post or, more interestingly at my co-working space. An email came round asking if anyone would be interested in joining a group of women heading to Bhutan for a mindfulness and volunteering trip through a company called Insightful Learning Journeys. Yes! I almost shouted back.
Although that actual trip never happened due to lack of numbers, having met up with Khatiza, founder of Insightful Learning Journeys, she asked if I would be interested in joining as a writer to another of her volunteering journeys which she facilitates for corporate employees. She was keen to have someone help her improve her website and write about the experience. Of course I jumped at the chance.
Khatiza founded Insightful Learning Journeys to create a foundation and framework of mindful values and practices which support both individuals and organisations and help create a ripple effect in communities. As a result of her keen interest in understanding and appreciating the value of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness, she was invited in 2012 to deliver a talk on the topic to the Google employees in Singapore. Thus began the volunteering journeys to Bhutan, with participants who were keen to help the country develop while striving to retain its core values.
To join the journey meant committing to giving your time to an organisation to transfer knowledge or skills (or both) for part of the time you visit. The Google employees that were joining her on this self-funded trip were doing so with the aim of sharing there skills in technology, marketing, sales, engineering and so on. In return they got a couple of days holiday in lieu and a trip of a lifetime, not to mention the personal accomplishment of helping a community grow.
How can I help?
Me? I was just a writer. What could I do? I was far from techie, and can’t claim to be a Google expert. But, ever resourceful, and knowing the needs of Bhutan as she does, Khatiza was quick to suggest a lady who has established Bhutan’s ONLY women’s magazine. Pema has been working on Yeewong for a number of years and apparently would be grateful my insight in to how to improve the magazine and its reach. Great I thought, that is right up my street. Or was it…?
Whilst I was happy to help out the magazine – and I did meet with Pema and offer some thoughts in to publishing from a Western perspective and we continue to keep in touch – I felt this wasn’t actually what Bhutan was ‘calling’ me for. There was something else, I was sure. Chatting to Khatiza one day it became clear. In fact, it was staring me in the face. My experience with children with Special Needs and my training as a Signalong tutor. My younger Son has Down’s Syndrome, so since becoming his mum 16 years ago I’ve learned A LOT about A LOT. All of it floating around in my brain somewhere.
When I revealed this to Khatiza she knew exactly where to put me – with the Ability Bhutan Society (ABS). A society inspired by the vision of the King of Bhutan and, according to its website “a place where those living with diverse abilities have a voice, where social workers develop skills to help, where families get support through education and psychosocial support and somewhere that provides qualified care providers.”
In a country like Bhutan, which is still very much in its infancy when it comes to understanding, training and the development of people with special needs, all offers of help and sharing of knowledge is welcomed.
So, in I walked with my four-penneth…
What do they need?
I met with Thuji, the behaviour specialist at ABS on our first night in Bhutan, and talking to her the extent of the help they needed was obvious. The vision and determination were there though – and that is half the battle. We talked about what resources were available (not many), what facilities were available (even less) and attitudes to disability in Bhutan. Unfortunately the elephant in the room was that in Buddhist religion, the matter of Karma is fundamental and the suggestion that people are ‘punished’ by being born with disability or special needs is an undeniable undercurrent.
However, thanks to people like Thuji and her wonderful Executive Director Beda who herself has a child with special needs, along with their team, the tide is turning and those with disabilities are being accepted, listened to and heard. In fact many Buddhist teaching dispel this karmic ‘payback’ as a myth.
After our dinner together I arranged to meet Thuji at ABS the next morning as she really wanted me to see the centre where most of the therapies and interventions are carried out. There were no brightly coloured walls, no nursery rhyme posters on the wall, no soft matting on the floor. Instead I was in a cold building of 3 levels – with NO RAMPS OR LIFTS. The irony of which wasn’t lost on Thuji or Beda, who both commented on it . But as I say, Bhutan is new to this. In the therapy rooms, names of children were pinned to the wall with a list of goals underneath. Under one or two of the names were chairs to aid sitting – the type children in the UK used about 15 years ago. Functional, yes. Comfortable? probably not.
But, I don’t want to paint a sad, poor picture here. It’s not like that. Thuji was justifiably proud to show me the goals for each child and the few toys they had, pointing out those that certain children favoured. It’s not that the Society can’t afford toys as such, it’s more that they just can’t GET them. Everything has to come from abroad, usually India, which isn’t always easy. Interestingly something that became more and more apparent throughout my visit wasn’t the lack of shiny new gadgets and fabulous sensory toys that they are crying out for, it was basic things like a colour printer to make visual timetables or a laminator so they could make PECS boards.
Honestly, my fund-raising mind went in to over drive straight away!
School is special for all
Thuji was keen for me to visit a local school with her to meet a teacher who had set up a special needs group within the school. Madam Chimmi works within a large local primary school and established a group within the school just for children with moderate learning difficulties when she could see that these children were not getting the help they needed elsewhere.
In a small classroom she works with 8 children varying in age with needs such as autism, global developmental delay and Downs Syndrome. The room was decorated with the children’s work and there was a small trampette in the corner which served as a place for some of the children to let off steam in between work. Again, what stood out was the lack of simple resources.
Tables were shifted around to accommodate what work they were doing and Madam Chimmi spent most of the time working on her own with the class. No easy task – as anyone who has worked with children with SN will testify. All of the children have a parent/carer outside during play time as their just isn’t the staff to supervise. As a result, many parents and carers have to sit outside the classroom all day as to go home and come back again is out of the question – we’re talking a long trek for many.
Despite this, many of those women (and they were all women) were grateful that their children had somewhere to go and would happily tolerate the tediousness of sitting on the floor or stone benches for hours on end. It felt very much like a community and they were there making things, chatting and passing the time in a convivial atmosphere, springing in to action when the children came out.
Madam Chimmi told me how difficult it was to access resources – much like Thuji had said. She was in desperate need of things like simple flash cards, keyrings to make up individual PECS aids, materials for art and the like. She wasn’t looking for computer programmes, sensory tunnels and new playground equipment. But more than that she wanted to learn. Learn how to help the children under her care as she wasn’t ‘officially trained’ in SN. She lapped up the few signs I showed one of the little girls who was desperately trying to talk to us but couldn’t produce actual words. She was interested to hear about my work as a Signalong Tutor and spoke of how, because there was no real speech therapy in Bhutan at all, there was nowhere to send children like Pema.
I also found out that there is just one psychologist in the whole of Bhutan – yes, that is one person helping EVERYONE who needs psychological help.
I came away from the school amazed at how much Madam Chimmi had achieved with what little training she had – with the support of the ABS. But there was so much more, with such little input that could be done. So my mind began buzzing. What if I could bring over a team of SN specialists? I know many myself and I was sure it is something that would appeal to many. My mind was whirring.
That afternoon I went to meet two local families who get support from the ABS and with whom I was going to be working with over the next couple of days. I was a little nervous as I wondered how I’d feel about someone new coming in to my house telling me what to do with my child. Especially someone from a completely different culture. I was very aware that my life was probably different in many ways – my access to help, my outlook, my view on SN generally and I tried to bear this in mind when planning what to do.
I decided the best way to help would be to do some ‘play therapy’ to encourage some of their other skills, be it fine motor, communication or social – or all three. I wanted to concentrate on communication as that is the area I have had training in and went for the idea of using sensory bags.
I filled two PE style bags with various items of different materials, textures, shapes, feel. I also took along things like cornflour, dough, pipe cleaners and shaving foam to play with.
Suvan, the first young man I met was 4 years old. I’d been in touch with his parents Pem and Sunil via email for a few weeks and they had given me some information on his background. He had trouble feeding from an early age, refusing any solid food. He also had global developmental delay and communication difficulties. The parents had been working hard on introducing various foods to Suvan, trying to wean him off pureed food and had got to a stage – through a lot of perseverance – where he had just begun to tolerate very small lumps. Unfortunately Suvan choked on a piece of food which led to a rush to the emergency room at the hospital. This clearly set him back and Pem and Sunil explained to me that he now once again refuses anything other than pureed food.
From talking to a therapist called Caroline Essame here in Singapore I went armed with some ideas and information on oral defensiveness. Along with my sensory bag of goodies I arrived the next day to play with Suvan the next day. A very astute little boy who sussed me out immediately and was reluctant to engage with me. He did however, tolerate me being around for quite a while. I was expecting this reaction as when I had called round the day before to meet the family he made it clear he wasn’t interested in me being there. A very typical reaction really for a boy who is happily watching nursery rhymes on TV and a stranger turns up.
My plan was to engage him through Pem and Sunil – therefore taking the pressure away from Suvan to have to ‘talk’ or ‘play’ with me. I showed Pem how to make up cornflour gloop and we encouraged Suvan over to see if he would touch it. He did, without fuss and we even managed to get him to put his whole hand on the top and feel the mixture melt underneath it. I explained to Pem that this was an ideal thing to do with cousins (she had previously told me he has a number of cousins of a similar age that he currently struggles to engage with).
I then took various things out of the sensory bag and either dropped them on the floor near to Suvan or threw them across to him. He picked up each thing and insisted I put it back in to the bag. Each time he did I over exaggerated my response. “No” – with a big shake of the head – “you don’t want this?” Or making sounds like “B” for the balls or “Ffff” for the feather.
I was encouraging each time he interacted with me – even it was to tell me to go by handing me my bag. He was charming and very determined. All traits that will serve him well I’m sure. After a while I let him go back to his nursery rhymes and went through some oral exercises with Pem that will hopefully help develop Suvan’s oral awareness. We also discussed getting some help and information from other places – websites, through the ABS and maybe further afield.
Both Sunil and Pem were very gracious having me in their home and both very keen to learn and help their son as much as possible. Sunil explained how they had taken him to Bangkok in the past to see experts that aren’t available in Bhutan. We also touched on how it can be isolating having a child with SN. I left feeling like I’d made friends with the family and hope I gave them at least some tools to use to help with his development.
Sherub, who is 10 and has global delay, was the other boy I had been placed with. Again I’d been in touch with his parents and his mum Ugyen had already expressed such gratitude to me I felt very humbled. When I went to meet the family it was clear they all took care of Sherub and were desperate to try to help him. In particular his younger sister, who had left school to become his main carer whilst his mum worked. This struck me as very selfless of her and I’m sure takes the pressure of the family immensely. I also felt a little sorry for her as she had given up her education.
But from what other people had told me, this is common in Bhutan due to lack of facilities for children like Sherub and Suvan. It also isn’t uncommon for families to have to leave their relatives at home alone all day in order to work – some of whom are so vulnerable they have to be locked in a room. This may sound shocking and it’s hard not to judge. But really, what would you do if your child couldn’t attend school and there was no one to look after him/her but you needed to work to keep your family fed? So Sherub was actually fortunate that he had someone to look after him.
Sherub was a friendly young man and happy to play with me. One of the areas his mum had expressed concern with was his tendency to grab at people, squeeze too hard or lash out. I had experience with this and I dealt with it by gently pushing his hand away, and saying no firmly and say something like ‘nice hands’ or ‘hands to yourself’. At one point Sherub did grab at my glasses (which was mainly due to over excitement), what was encouraging was that he immediately looked to his mum which suggests he understood it was not appropriate. A simple no with my hand and voice was all that was needed.
He really enjoyed the sensory bag and happily played with the squishy balls and scarves. He especially liked the balloon and we played with this for a while. Blowing it up, making lots of funny noises which he tried to mimic, and then letting it go and making even more funny noises. Soon Sherub tried to imitate the shape of blowing with his mouth and this was really encouraging. He loved the play foam and his sisters helped him manipulate it. He chased the balls and when he clearly had decided a break was needed he wandered in to another room. But each time he came back very happily and it was easy to engage him once again.
I know a lot of young children like Sherub and I was really struck by how the right kind of input can make the world of difference. In my opinion I would say Sherub was on the autistic spectrum. I know that Thuji has trained in ABA and explained to Ugyen that I thought this was a programme Sherub could really benefit from, particularly in areas like toilet training. I wondered how many children would get the opportunity to join the programme though when only one person in the country could carry it out?
I felt a real need for the families to be involved more and suggested – both to Ugyen and Thuji – that maybe his sister could attend any ABA with Sherub and learn how to do it with him. That way, she would learn a way to help him and then perhaps have a skill she could use later on too.
Again I felt a real bond with Sherub and his family and was welcomed with grace and humility. I was struck by how different things are when you are in a country that is still catching up with regards to training and awareness. But it was clear the need is there – as is the willingness to learn.
Having finished working with the boys I met with Thuji and Beda and talked about how things went. They were both keen to hear what my thoughts were which was very humbling once again – after all, I’m just a mum with a little bit of experience. I had brought along some flash cards, simple games and communication ideas that I left with them. Along with a flip chart or two, note books and other things that the Googlers kindly gave me.
I asked Thuji to make a list of materials or resources they needed most and I would see what I could get together. What was on it surprised me once again – velcro strips, laminating pouches, key word flash cards. Things that we can pick up easily enough here. I said I’d start a collection and get a package to them next year. Although how the heck they get their post is a mystery since there are no addresses as such in Bhutan!
If you have any items you’d like to donate, please see the link below.
Having returned from my journey and reflected on the time I spent with the ABS and the families in Bhutan, what’s crystal clear is the need for training, information and advice. Also, that it would actually be quite simple to start making inroads to help.
Do you want to help?
So, I have a plan. My idea is to get a team together next year to go out and offer our skills. Just as Insightful Learning Journeys do with the Googlers – give the communities the tools and knowledge to help themselves. Teaching people how to fish as it were.
I’m looking for speech therapists, SN teachers, ABA qualified people, child psychologists, OT’s, Physiotherapists and of course, parents who want to share their knowledge. The idea being that we go in and teach/help the staff of ABS who will then, in turn, be able to help the families of Bhutan.
In return? Well, you’d get the experience of a life time and we’ll make sure you get time to see some of the stunning beauty of this amazing country. The trip would be self funded (maybe your company offers some kind of programme whereby they’d sponsor you?) But I promise it’s worth every penny. Think of it as a holiday as you will come back feeling great.
If you are interested in joining this SN group to Bhutan, please get in touch as soon as possible. Email me putting Bhutan Volunteering in the title bar. If you are based in Singapore or the UK and you have resources to donate please also email me here with details of what you could offer and I will arrange either collection or a drop off point.
Finally, here is a piece Thuji sent me that she wrote about her feelings regarding the children she works with. She is sending it in to her local paper to raise awareness.She agreed to let me share it here.
One morning I was driving to work, I got a call from an old friend who wanted me to see his nephew who has Autism. I was excited to meet his nephew whom I had heard about but never met. As the car drove into my office parking lot I saw a young, handsome boy on the front seat. I opened the door and greeted him. He looked at me and took his seat belt off. He held my hand as we walked into the office.
He looked excited and happy. Let me call him Nima, like the Sun. He was a strong and energetic teenager living with Autism.
Autism in simple words is an impairment in socialisation and expressive language with sensory related issues like vocalisation and self-stimming behaviour. Nima could not express his needs or wants, but he understood what everyone around him was saying. Nima looks for warm hugs, love and gentleness from people around him. He has a beautiful soul, full of innocence.
His parents are divorced and he gets little attention at home. He is sent off to a village with his grandparents, who do not know what to do with this young teenager. It’s not his parents’ fault – they are frustrated and helpless. His parents do not know how to take care of him living in Thimphu. No doubt this young teenager is neglected and seen as a burden to family. Deep in his eyes there is a story untold.
When I met him and after spending time with him I feel his voice. In his voice I write for him:
Whose child am I?
‘My parents have no time for me, waiting for me to perish. I cannot express my basic needs. I am hungry and I don’t know how to ask for food. I am cold but I can’t ask for warm clothes. I want to go out like every teenager but the outside light effects my vision and the noises are magnified too loud. ‘
Like Nima, there are many children living behind closed doors, asking whose child am I? Do I have a right to live?
Do you know a family who has a child like Nima? Can your heart open to be more understanding? Can you hear his – and the family’s voice?
Ability Bhutan Society
To find out more about ways to help the ABS in Bhutan please get in touch. Either fill out the form below or email me.
Click through to the links to read about the rest of my time in Bhutan.
Here for how it all began
Here for sightseeing in Bhutan
Here for the Tigers Nest Trek