My daughter has a good friend, J, from her old preschool. He recently visited us on a playdate. It was a pleasant surprise to see that he was interested in playing with my daughter’s toys. When I commented on his tan, I learnt that he now swims. He is growing up well, and even takes a school bus everyday. He has autism, so his independence is an achievement.
This is a stark difference to what I saw a few years ago, when I visited my parents-in-law, and lived with my autistic brother-in-law for a few days. He is two years younger than me, but dresses himself in a primary school uniform everyday.
Every day, he watches the same TV channel, goes to the same place at the same time, and eats the same food for the same occasions. Any disruption in his schedule leaves him confused and frustrated, leading to head-banging episodes.
According to the Autism Resource Centre (Singapore), it is difficult to provide a figure on the actual number of persons affected by autism in Singapore. Based on recent research in other countries, the centre expects “a prevalence rate of 24,000 individuals with autism in our population of four million, of which 5,472 are children under the age of 19 years”. The ARC(S) estimates that 216 new cases of children with autism are diagnosed annually.
J, like most autistic kids, suffers from sensory issues. “He is sensitive to some noises – not necessarily just loud ones. Sometimes, he is sensitive to people walking behind him,” his mother says.
I am glad that today, in Singapore, this condition is better understood and help is more readily available. We have schools which accept students with learning difficulties, and online forums for parents to share tips on useful resources.
Nevertheless, coping with this condition can be trying. It is expensive. While developmental clinics exist, parents have to fork out around $100 for a 60-minute therapy session. A child with mild autism needs to attend educational therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, as well as social classes. J’s mother spends over $2,000 a month for these, on top of his preschool fees. To her, they are worth every cent.
“When J was around three years old, he would throw himself back or hit his head against the wall whenever he was upset and unable to express and control his emotions. I used to cry so much whenever I saw him hurting himself, and feel so helpless. I would hold him and tell him, ‘Please don’t do that, J. Mommy feels so sad whenever you do that’,” his mother describes.
But even at his young age, I could feel the love that J has for me. Autistic children hardly look into another person’s eyes. But whenever I cried, J would look into my eyes and wipe my tears even though he never uttered a single word to me. Perhaps he knew that throwing himself back like that would also hurt his mommy. He has since stopped throwing or hitting himself.”
J is now six years old. His preschool friends are already registered in various primary schools, but his parents only have eyes for Pathlight School. This is the first autism-focused school in Singapore that teaches a mainstream primary school curriculum and life-ready skills. The specialised teachers and staff encourage autistic children to learn in a positive environment. Although their current enrollment is above 700, the queue is long and you have to be ready to wait a couple of years for a place.
Of course, an autistic child could go to a normal primary school. But would the child be happy there? A mother of an autistic child, who contacted primary schools in her area to find out about whether her child should attend one, shared in a forum, “The standard reply that I have received is that you have to look at your child’s needs and development and map it against the school”.
Ideally, J would study at his dream school, and perhaps after two or three years, be able to transfer to a normal primary school. In the meantime, while waiting to join the waitlist, he has to undergo a set of tests, one of which is an IQ test that costs more than $700.
I asked his mother what her plans are. She has decided to let J continue at his current preschool, repeating another year, until a vacancy at Pathlight is available. J has also been attending lessons at Metta School twice a week. This, his mother shares, has been helpful, but the school only accepts children until they are seven years old. Despite the stress and uncertainty, J’s parents soldier on.
“The therapy sessions and the improvement in his speech have helped him to manage his emotions better,” J’s mum shares.
“J has always been a happy boy in school. He is very well liked by his friends. He will try to use simple words to express himself. My target now is to make him express himself more. His progress has been comforting for me. ‘Take little giant steps’ is what I have learnt to tell myself after all these years. I believe in J. He is special and beautiful in his own way.”