When her son Malcolm was 3 and a half, Cindy Chee noticed that he had lost eye contact. She had noticed that he had differences when he was 17 months old. The doctor noted that Malcolm had speech delay. Upon discovering his son was not “normal”, Malcolm’s father left the family. Malcolm was eventually diagnosed with autism at the age of 6 and a half.
Today, Malcolm is 14 and a student at a special school. “He suffers from gut pain daily, lives with eyes issues and he has learned to live through each day without speech,” Cindy describes. Malcolm also has certain sensory needs, such as feeling dirt with his hands and feet in order to calm down. Despite his challenges, Malcolm has many wonderful qualities.
“He has understanding,” his mother adds. “He is very independent—has been since he was 16 months old. Before he was 2, he could change his own clothes, put on his shoes by himself, go to the toilet by himself. He never peed in bed at night, except once at 17 months old when he ran a high fever. He is also very sweet by nature.”
Raising Malcolm has not been easy for Cindy. Her family cannot understand Malcolm’s condition, and so support has not been forthcoming. Being a single parent, Cindy also cannot afford to send Malcolm for as much therapy as she would like.
Last year (2016) Malcolm began to journal his feelings in writing, and that has opened up a world of discovery for Cindy—she is now able to understand all the feelings and emotions her son experiences.
“I realised he writes more and surprises me daily,” she says. “He is very fast in grasping new concepts n quick to apply as long you have explained it to him. I also realised he learns by himself through sermons I play and listen to with him, or shows I allow him to watch. By God’s mercy, he is learning from everywhere.”
Malcolm recently attracted public attention when his letters to and his heartfelt journal entries about a horse who did not recover from an accident and eventually had to be put down. Malcolm is a beneficiary of Riding for the Disabled Association Singapore (RDA), which conducts riding lessons for children with disabilities to help them gain confidence and body awareness. Lukas was a horse that he befriended, and Malcolm penned down his prayers for the horse’s recovery and his ensuing sorrow when Lukas died. The story appeared on a popular blogsite Mothership.sg, which was widely shared.
Cindy draws her strength from God—as does Malcolm. “I have fallen to rock bottom and how I am still struggling to move on by God’s mercy,” admits Cindy. “I thank God for being in my life when no one accepted us or when they thought we were wrong or crazy. God has been our comfort and strength these 14 years. My heart must be right whenever I face my son, because he seems to be so sensitive to the presence of God too.” Mother and son attend City Harvest Church services together on weekends.
It is estimated that one in every 100 individuals in Singapore has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Out of that, some 11,500 ASD individuals are under the age of 19. According to the Autism Resource Centre (www.autism.org.sg), each year over 200 children are diagnosed with ASD.
WHAT IS AUTISM?
Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD is a life-long, developmental condition that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them. There is no known cure for ASD, and a child with autism will not “outgrow” it but he or she, with early intervention can learn to manage difficulties and even live a fruitful and fulfilling life.
Autism is said to be on a spectrum because individuals with ASD fall anywhere within a spectrum and no two persons with autism are the same. They may differ in the interaction of two key dimensions: Severity of Autism and Intellectual Ability. (See Autism Resource Centre’s explanation)
Autism comes from the Greek word autos, which means “self”; a person with autism is often described as one who lives in a world of his own. Autism is a developmental disorder characterised by restricted, repetitive types of behaviour or interests (eg they may like to draw dinosaurs and would draw them all day) and impairment in social communication and interaction (they are unable to communicate or interact like a typical child).
There is no definitive cause for autism, but research shows it could be caused by various conditions that affect brain development before, during or after birth. Other research suggests an imbalance in certain brain chemicals.
WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I SUSPECT MY CHILD HAS AUTISM?
The good news is, autism support has grown by leaps and bounds in the last two decades. Children diagnosed with ASD can now get support from various organisations and even in school.
Early signs of autism (by 12 months of age) include:
– Not babbling
– Not pointing
– Not showing objects to caregivers
– Lack of other gestures
– Lack of shared enjoyment
– Repetitive actions or movements
– Poor eye contact
– Paying more attention to objects than people
– Not copying actions or sounds
– Limited play with toys
– Not responding to his or her name being called*
(Source: The Hanen Centre, www.hanen.org)
Early intervention is KEY, and we cannot emphasize this enough. The earlier your child gets help, the greater his chances of succeeding in managing his difficulties, discovering his strengths and integrating into society.
See your paediatrician with your concerns and ask for your child to be screened. You may also go through the public healthcare system for support: a referral letter from your nearest Polyclinic will link you with the Child Development Clinic at KK Hospital or another government hospital. It is a good idea to first seek help using the public healthcare as, if your child is diagnosed with ASD, the CDC is able to guide you and your child through necessary therapies, assessment and school-readiness for your child as he grows up.
Schools like Pathlight School, Rainbow Centre and Eden School offer good study options for children with ASD. Mainstream schools also offer learning support for students who have ASD.
Autism Resource Centre (www.autism.org.sg) is a good first stop if you are looking for materials to read up on autism, or to receive training on how to help your child.