Living with autism

PHOTO: Living with autism

When she gave birth to her first child seven years ago, Ms Brenda Tan, 37,had no clue that the boy, Calder, would be different.

Then, there were some warning signs. At 18 months old, Calder didn't like to look at other people and he still couldn't talk. He also seemed obsessed with spinning the wheels of his toy cars.

As she had no comparison, Ms Tan didn't realise anything was amiss. It was only after a routine check-up that a paediatrician raised the red flag . Ms Tan tells The New Paper on Sunday: "The paediatrician called out his name but he didn't turn to look at her. He just continued doing his own thing.

"She also asked him where his eyes and his nose were - to get him to point. But he didn't seem to understand her."

He was then referred to the KK Women's and Children's Hospital where it was suggested Calder go into child care in the hope that social interaction with other children would improve his speech and social skills.

Ms Tan, a part-time lecturer with Nanyang Technological University, followed the advice but Calder did not show any improvement. He still could not talk by the time he was three.

She says: "It was then we decided to take the diagnostic test and he was found to be moderately autistic."

Ms Tan wasn't ready for the news.

"I was in a daze for a year, wondering what happened. At the same time, I read up voraciously on autism," she says.

Since then, Ms Tan has learnt to come to terms with her son's condition.

'Totally fearless'

She sent him to the Autism Children's Centre in Simei for early intervention measures, where he had intensive small-group and one-on-one sessions with the teachers. They also designed individual education plans to address his specific weaknesses.

Bringing up Calder has been "very interesting, if challenging," says Ms Tan. For example, he used to be a stickler for routines.

She explains: "He was very rigid. He wanted the same route to the school. We could not change the route at all.

"He wanted the same patterns - after kaya bread, he had to have a serving of bread with jam too."

If the routine was broken, he would have a meltdown. He would run wildly in big circles or run off while crying loudly. It would be very hard to calm him down, she says.

"It was very frustrating because it didn't make sense to follow such rigid sequences. It was also very stressful because he was very stubborn," she adds.

Now, Calder is no longer so rigid about routines.

That progress will hopefully continue at the Eden School for children with autism. He joined the school, which is in Bukit Batok, in January this year.

Ms Tan says he "delights" in disappearing acts.

Recently he went missing when she was about to take him to the supermarket.

Ms Tan says: "When I was locking up the door, he ran down the stairs. As I had a trolley, I could not chase after him fast enough.

"By the time I came down, I couldn't see or hear him any more.

"I ran down 14 floors, listening for sounds that he makes. I couldn't find him, so I called out his name and then I went back up the 14 floors of stairs.

"He came back, laughing. He's totally fearless."

Ms Tan is concerned he doesn't realise how dangerous the world, and in particular, traffic can be.

She says: "I told my husband that we should have some GPS system to track him down.

"My autistic boy made me realise my own vulnerability. There is so little I can do to help him and his autism will never go away."

Ms Tan's advice to other parents with autistic children: "Take it one step at a time. That way, you will feel less overwhelmed."

To promote a better understanding of the condition, she has written a book, Come into my world: 31 stories of Autism in Singapore. It's a collection of true stories shared by Singaporean parents of autistic children.

She says: "I have come to realise that at the end of the day, what is most important is that the child knows he or she is dearly loved. So surround your child with your love."

Debunking autism myths

Debunking autism myths

Autism sufferers, especially children, can be stigmatised and discriminated against as a result of the disorder.

Ms Frances Yeo, principal psychologist at The Child Development Centre, helps to debunk some myths about autism.

Myth: Autism is a psychiatric or mental illness.

It isn't. Autism is a neurodevelopmental (or brain development) disorder that affects a person's ability to communicate, form relationships and interact with the demands of the environment.

When stressed out or placed in situations without the necessary skills, people with autism may display unusual behaviour, flapping their hands or spinning.

Myth: It is a phase that children will 'grow out' of.

There is no cure for autism. It is a lifelong disorder.

But research supports the notion that outcomes improve significantly when children receive structured intervention at the earliest possible age.

Myth: Autism is due to bad parenting.

Parents should not feel guilty if their child develops autism - it is a developmental disability that results from a neurological disorder affecting the functioning of the brain.

Myth: Autism is caused by gluten and casein in the child's diet, or by childhood vaccinations.

There is no scientific evidence yet that proves autism is caused by either.

Myth: Autistic children cannot talk.

Autism symptoms vary widely between children and no two children are alike.

Some children have intact language skills while others may not talk at all.

Myth: Autistic children all have intellectual disability.

Not all children with autism have intellectual disability. Autistic children can have normal to high intelligence. Some may develop very advanced reading levels at a very young age.

Myth: All autistic children display the same behaviour.

Autism covers a wide spectrum. Some children are sensitive to loud sounds and may cover their ears while some may engage in hand-flapping.

Also, not all children with autism tiptoe - one of the warning signs in toddlers. Some make no eye contact while others may briefly glance at others.