While many people read books for pleasure, Sakulsri Boonchotanan reads to create a new life for her son.
Sakulsri said her 10-year-old son, Chester, was diagnosed with a mild case of autism spectrum disorder when he was five, and has received special care from the Rajanukul Institute, which provides medical care and educational support for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Mother and son have been taking part in a "reading therapy" programme for children with special needs which is a collaboration between the Rajanukul Institute, Books for Children Foundation and private companies. It has proven to be a turning point in Chester's life.
"My son likes moving actively and running around," said Sakulsri. "He sometimes finds it hard to listen and talk to people."
Books for Children Foundation managing director Ruangsak Pinprateep said the programme was part of the Bookstart Thailand project conceptualised by the pilot project Bookstart UK. It encourages parents to share books with babies and kids from as early an age as possible, and educates parents on the importance of reading with kids.
"Bookstart was initially created for normal children. But we believe that reading is a powerful tool for the growth of children, so we decided to adapt the concept to children with special needs," Ruangsak said.
Parents and children participating in the programme receive a gift bag with a series of three books for children, a manual for parents to work on reading, a guide to improve children's language skills and develop a reading habit, other educational materials and a doll. Trained volunteer readers meet the children and their families at the institute five times a year in order to work on reading together and to teach parents techniques for use at home.
Since the programme's launch in 2009, 222 special needs children have participated so far. According to Ruangsak, a study has shown children with special needs will have increased concentration spans within three months of being read to. By the sixth month, they are able to read words and sentences correctly and also give correct answers to questions related to the stories. The study found 85.18% of them enjoy listening to stories, 81.48% are able to sit until the end, and 70.37% are able to focus on all activities provided.
"At first, it was difficult to convince my son to concentrate on listening to a story until the end," said Sakulsri. "So I've applied the reading techniques learned from the volunteer readers, and they work. My son now has a longer attention span while being read to and when reading."
Thitirut Thiruttanakul, a volunteer reader, said: "The trick is to make reading a fun activity. Try to hide the characters and find certain things, make noises and make the story up when parents go along. Also try to get kids involved as much as possible and have fun learning together."
Ruangsak added: "Parents should try several teaching methods in order to find the right one for their child."
He suggested parents find out what subjects their child is passionate about as this will provide a greater chance of holding their attention. "Once the child takes an interest in that book, they would find reading a fun activity," he said.
Sakulsri said Chester loves animals and was able to learn vocabulary on that subject much faster than other, everyday words. His favourite book is Koo Kai Puad Tong (A Chicken Has A Stomach Ache), about a chicken that enjoys eating colourful yet unhealthy sweets and then has a stomach ache. The little chick talks about his symptoms to other animals while waiting for a doctor bear to treat him. Written in rhymes, Koo Kai Puad Tong is created to teach little kids about unhealthy food. "My son now sees reading time as learning time and fun time. He loves his book and looks at it every day," said Sakulsri. "We sit on the floor together and read for 10 to 15 minutes a day in the evening. I let him turn the pages to discover new things. I start a sentence and then ask him to finish it.
"Sharing books with my son helps me connect to him and create a close bond between us."
Ruangsak said choosing reading material is very important for children who have special needs. Educational aids should come with reading text and a wide range of pictures that help children recognise things in everyday life and learn about emotions. A book written in rhymes can also be excellent for them.
"Rhymes help improve children's language and speech development as well as concentration skills," said Ruangsak, who is also an author of children's books. "Visual cues can help children to easily understand words."
One of the companies that actively takes part in this programme is Starbucks Coffee Thailand. Marketing and communications director Sumonpin Jotikabukkana said the company was "glad to be part of this project that helps plant the seeds of happiness into families with special needs children".
"We also encourage our staff to take part in this programme as much as we can. Worldwide, Starbucks Coffee has achieved more than 613,000 voluntary hours of community service and expects to reach a million hours by 2015."
Thitirut is an employee of the coffee chain who has also been a volunteer reader for four years.
"Being a volunteer is a gift of my time and helps me feel needed and valued. You know, making a difference in someone's life is very fulfilling," she said. Ruangsak said all volunteers are trained in language and reading skills by experts.
"It's important to read aloud for special needs children in order to let them hear the voice and listen to the spoken words clearly and correctly, and reading the same story again and again will help them learn language," he said. "Don't rush, let them work at their own pace." Through the programme, Sakulsri said her son's language and social skills have greatly improved. Chester is able to get along well with his classmates and he enjoys interacting with new people.
Her advice for parents with special needs children is: "Don't take it for granted that our kids are hopeless and helpless. They are normal kids who just need extra help. They like moving, rolling around and playing in the dirt like other kids. Importantly, they like reading and being read to _ things that could change their lives.
"Learn to connect with them and you will find that they have a sense of humour. They give amazing hugs. And they have smiles that can light up a room."