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Sharifah Salleh: Shaping The Minds Of Special Needs Students at IDEAS Autism Centre

Wiki Impact celebrates Teacher’s Day 2023 by honouring teachers who go above and beyond to ensure that all children, regardless of their socio-economic status, citizenship, abilities, or background, have access to education. Their names may not immediately ring a bell, but these unsung heroes have positively impacted countless lives and futures.

“I would like to be remembered as a special needs teacher,” said Sharifah Salleh, 54.

The career path Sharifah sets for 25 years is filled with negative stereotypes.

I have heard people say that special needs teachers only teach children to clap or potty-train. 

However, the compassionate principal of IDEAS Autism Centre, an organisation dedicated to providing affordable interventions for children with autism knew that teaching special needs children requires a different standard of assessment.

In special education, no matter how small the progress may be, it is meaningful to both educators and children. 

From the get-go, Sharifah wanted to become a teacher and the opportunity landed in her lap in the 1990s. 

I was accepted into Maktab Perguruan Melayu Melaka in 1994 to pursue a teaching certificate. However, within the next two months, I found out I was pregnant with my second child and as part of the policy, pregnant women can’t enrol. 

Sharifah tried a few more times to be accepted into the institution but to no avail. She later stumbled upon an advertisement posted by the National Autism Society of Malaysia (NASOM) and that was the start of her journey as a special needs teacher. 

I started off with a small salary. At that time, that wasn’t a hindrance. All I wanted to do was teach. 

The newly minted special needs teacher faced uphill challenges in the field of special needs education. In the 1990s, training, resources and expertise in this field were highly priced and limited. 

When I started as a special needs teacher, training was expensive. In the absence of the Internet, smartphones, and social media, it was difficult to access information and find updated resources.

With the minimal knowledge that Sharifah had at that time, she found herself hitting the brick wall.

Students with autism have diverse needs so it will reach a stage where we don’t know what to teach, we just become slightly lost. 

After dedicating 16 years of her career to NASOM, Sharifah decided to spread her wings and support Persatuan Dyslexia Malaysia in 2010. Two years later, an exciting opportunity came knocking on her door. A representative from IDEAS approached her to start the early intervention program at the IDEAS Autism Center. Despite the unknowns that came with the new opportunity, Sharifah embraced it with open arms, without any fear or worry holding her back.

As part of the pioneering team at IDEAS, Sharifah was responsible for building the curriculum and modules taught at the centre. While she initially educated children directly, her role as a principal required her to hone budding educators and ensure the centre ran smoothly. 

I prioritise togetherness and collaboration among my teachers and emphasize the importance of treating all students equally, regardless of the severity of their condition. I also ensure my teachers carried enough knowledge to effectively support their students in the classroom.

Despite the challenges faced by children with special needs in Malaysia, Sharifah’s hope for them remains steady – that they will grow up to become more independent, and that society will become more accepting of them. 

However, the growing number of autistic children in Malaysia since 2010, from 99 to 589 in 2021[1], is a cause for concern as chances of leading a meaningful life for this growing population are slim due to the limited opportunities available for those with disabilities.

Sharifah’s mission at IDEAS is to set her students on a better path by providing guidance and support to lead independent lives. 

I hope that our guidance will set them on a better path. We work with our students’ parents to ensure that they will have a better chance to be accepted into society and the workplace. 

She has always believed that making a significant impact on marginalised groups requires sincerity in serving students, teachers, and parents. She places great emphasis on being a sincere educator who is genuinely committed to improving the lives of those she serves.

Beyond being recognised for my work, I am content with knowing that the knowledge I spread is done sincerely. I just want to be an educator who is sincere in her profession. 

As the principal at IDEAS, Sharifah has achieved several milestones since 2012. These milestones include creating worksheets for children with autism and developing guidelines for educators and hospital staff in dealing with this special demographic. In addition, she has developed curriculum for autism students for beginner, intermediate and advanced level and is currently being used at other autism centre. Recently, Sharifah created a curriculum designed to cater to pre-vocational level autistic students.

Her vision for the future includes further changes and improvements to the centre to better serve its students and their families.

Explore our sources:

  1. CodeBlue. (2022). Malaysia’s Autism Rate Steadily Rising Since 2010. Link

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