We had to break the news.
“Calder is autistic.”
We announced this after every one had eaten during the birthday celebration of my mom and Calder, whose birth dates are two days apart.
My mom’s expression was one of puzzlement. Autistic?
“It means he may never attend normal school.”
Her countenance fell.
My son Calder was three years old when we decided not to wait any longer for him to start talking. Following the doctor’s advice, we had him assessed formally at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital. The test took more than two hours and comprised observation and parents’ answers to questionnaires.
Unfortunately, Calder did not cooperate with the psychologist. Instead of following her instructions, he was more interested in playing with the window blinds. Then he did something he had never done before: he lay on the floor and spun himself like a fan. The verdict: moderate autism.
So autism is the reason why he didn’t respond when we called his name. Autism is the reason why he appeared deaf to our words. And later, autism would explain why everything must take place in a certain order, and why he flaps his hands like a chicken when excited, why he makes sounds like long yawns when he is enjoying bus rides. Autism makes him weird but nothing beats the idea that he would never be able to attend mainstream schools.
If you are a parent, your goal for your child would probably be to see him or her through PSLE, O’levels, A’levels. Of course, it would be great if your child can make it to university. And when your child has graduated, you hope he or she would get a good job and marry a good spouse. When I found out that Calder is autistic, I got lost because the normal route had somehow vanished.
Of course, there are parents who put their autistic child in mainstream schools. The child may struggle socially and academically but what’s most important to them is that this child spends time among normal children and learns to behave like one. Other parents hesitate to put their autistic child in mainstream schools because they fear the child would be singled out for his or her oddity and be mercilessly bullied.
I belong to the latter group of parents. Especially so since Calder’s language, even now at six years old, does not extend beyond the basic like “give me apple”, “go to sleep”, “take train”. I am worried because he would never be able to tell me if he’s bullied. Besides, for a child who does not know how to gargle despite two years of teaching, he is not going to be able to cope with weekly spelling tests. I know of parents who use the cane to make their child learn spelling well. Imagine being that child!
Still, it is hard to give up the dream of a promising future for Calder. And in Singapore, “good future” is equated with educational qualifications. So I turned my attention to Pathlight School, the only autism school in Singapore that trains its students for certifications like PSLE and the O’levels. Since it specializes in autism, I can trust it to protect my child from bullies and other discomfort that a neurotypical person may not be aware of. It seems to be the best of both worlds. Unfortunately, it is so popular that you need to achieve an IQ of some 75 to 80 to qualify.
It became my mission to train Calder to be “smart” enough to enter Pathlight School. I engaged tutors and therapists to help him, I made him many laminated books so he could memorise his address, memorise the definition of occupations, recognize the function of various tools etc. Every evening, my husband and I took turns to teach Calder for one hour, hoping he could absorb all the knowledge in time for his second psychological test. This is the TEST which would determine whether or not he would be pursuing educational certificates like other children.
Shortly before his sixth birthday, Calder took this test. I had prayed that he would be a good boy and cooperate with the psychologist. He was a good boy and did his best. But his best was not enough. He could not understand what was required of him. The psychologist wanted him to arrange blocks according to a given picture but he kept putting the blocks directly onto the picture. And when he managed to get the formation right, the psychologist wouldn’t stop the timing (yes, timing was recorded) until he had aligned his blocks parallel to the picture.
He could name colours and shapes but he could not answer the question, “How many legs does a bird have?” At this point, so early into the test, the psychologist said she would not give him an IQ score because of his extreme marks (near full marks versus near zero marks). But there were so many things we had taught him that had not been tested! Like counting. Counting is a learned concept and not a part of IQ, said the psychologist. But later she tested him on alphabet! She asked him, “What is your full name?” He gave the right answer, but then she said: it sounded scripted (of course, how else does he learn?!).
He is not going to be able to cope in Pathlight, she said. No, do not write him off yet, I beseeched, please carry on with the test and see how well he can score. It will get harder, she warned, and it did. The tasks she subsequently gave were impossible ones – bird is to worm as squirrel is to acorn, for example. Or rain is to umbrella as sun is to sunglasses. How is my Calder supposed to know such things? He is barely interested in them! The test became a nightmare not to show how much he knew but how much he didn’t know, like a set-up to convince me my son couldn’t make it. My husband and I shook our heads at each other. Nonetheless, I was very proud of Calder for staying seated and tackling these ridiculous questions with a smile.
At the end of the session, I was ready to raise both hands - I SURRENDER! I surrender my hopes of him entering Pathlight! I surrender my dreams of him qualifying educationally like other children! I surrender the certain future of a good job and a good spouse for my boy!
I seem to have failed in my goals for Calder but now that I have failed, the goals get replaced by perhaps more worthy goals – that he grows up happily, for instance. That he learns at his own pace.
The next morning, when I greeted Calder “Good Morning”, what I saw was no longer a boy who could never catch up. I saw a free spirit, free to learn happily, free from the rat race. So I was sad but at the same time relieved.
Perhaps, at the end of the day, Calder is going to be the one to have lived a truly fulfilled life after all.
The above article was written in 2010 and published in Today’s Parents. Author Brenda Tan wrote a book entitled “Come into my world: 31 stories of Autism in Singapore”. This book is sold in autism schools and a few cafes. To find out more, visit www.come-into-my-world.com.