Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Unpredictables

There is a strange man in my neighbourhood. He looks normal, cheerful even. But he does not behave normally. I usually see him at the bus-stop with his loud radio. He is strange because the radio plays only rhythm, not tune. So you keep hearing drumbeats and maybe the cymbal in a repetitive rhythm. He would put the radio right beside his ear and jiggle his big plastic bag of batteries.

Another day, I saw him with not his radio, but a big bag of whistles. He was blowing one of them repeatedly. He saw my boy, smiled at him and generously offered him one whistle. I stopped my boy from taking the whistle and gestured “no” with a smile and a polite little shake of the head; I did not want to antagonize this strange man. Then I gently turned my son away from him.

I did what most parents would do to protect their children. Although the man was not aggressive, he acted strangely and so fell into the category called “Unpredictable”. When people do not follow social norms, you feel insecure because you do not know what harm they can do. It is therefore natural that you try to keep a distance.

Some weeks ago, I got the chills when I caught a glimpse of this category from a different angle. This time, my six-year-old son was in the box.

My son Calder loves trains. He gets really excited when a train moves. One day, we were in the MRT station waiting for our train. The train from the opposite direction arrived first. When he saw it coming, he leapt from his seat and started jumping up and down in delight. He flapped his hands too. I registered the reaction of a mother sitting beside us. When Calder leapt from his seat, it gave her daughter a fright. (She was probably one or two years older than Calder.) Instinctively, the mother shielded her from Calder, who had become “Unpredictable” and therefore dangerous in her eyes.

How did I feel? I was dismayed but not alarmed. Calder was diagnosed with autism three years ago. In three years, I have learned to accept that my son is different from other children, and because he behaves differently, people are going to look at me differently too. Fortunately I love him so much that I’m happy to bring him out despite his odd behaviour. And sometimes, the best way to cope is to pretend we exist in a bubble apart from the rest.

He is the good-looking boy on the bus who makes sounds like long yawns. He makes such sounds because he enjoys rides. Since it is a display of bliss, I see no need to curtail it. He pushes his way into the lift because that’s his favourite thing and then he jabs at the buttons repeatedly. The other day, he made a bee-line for a toilet cubicle, oblivious to the queue outside the door. As usual, I had to apologise on his behalf. My apologies did not work, though, when he tried washing his hands at all the sinks in another toilet. I was in a cubicle when he did that and emerged quickly when I heard an auntie scolding him in Mandarin. That auntie turned out to be the toilet cleaner. “Naughty! I told you not to waste water!” I explained to her that Calder is autistic; he did not understand what she’s talking about. But she carried on ranting. Like many members of the public, she probably did not understand what autism is.

You know what is the difficult thing about having an autistic child? It is that the child looks like other children but cannot be expected to act like them. One of the symptoms of autism is problem in communication. Calder does not understand much language. His speech is limited to the things (usually food) he wants. If you are to ask him what he did in school, he would probably just smile at you. It depends on the tone you use. If you use a commanding tone for the same words, he would cry. Just yesterday, my three-year-old daughter burst into tears in a frustrated attempt to converse with her brother. “Calder, did you cry cry in school today or are you happy?” she had asked. When he didn’t respond, she repeated her question more loudly. The result? He started crying and chanted, “It’s ok, it’s ok...” as he is apt to do when he’s upset.

Another symptom of autism is lack of social skills. Unlike his sister, Calder does not seek friends. He is happy on his own. However, he watches people and can sense mood. Put him in a room of happy people (not too noisy or cramped) and he would be happy. When he is happy, he smiles like the world is a really beautiful place, and he flaps his hands. When there’s tension in the air, like when my husband and I are about to start an argument, Calder would pick up the negative vibes and be agitated to tears.

The third main symptom of autism is an obsession for repetition. Calder loves to watch the lift open and close. At home, given a choice, he would spend all his time flipping switches and flushing toilets. He wants to watch the same show (Baby Gournet) every day. He asks for the same fruits in the same order. His greatest fear, it seems, is that family members would not cooperate to ensure the completion of the many routines in his daily life. Not giving him jam bread after kaya bread, for example, is enough to send him into panic mode.

Yes, having an autistic child is like entering a different league of parenthood. We have to consider carefully what we allow him because it can easily turn into another tiresome routine. Because Calder’s understanding of language is limited, I cannot say “no” to him then pacify him with a valid explanation. What I do instead is to anticipate his wants and offer him what I have before he requests for what I don’t have or am not prepared to give. For example, I put his breakfast on the table before he comes into the kitchen so he would not get upset if he asks for, say, cake and I have to tell him we don’t have any cake at home at that time. Because he hears the tone more than the words, I am careful how I inflect my voice when I speak to him.

Surprises and changes unsettle him, so I make a point to tell him what to expect next. He hates to be interrupted, especially when he is engrossed in his version of play, which is to do something repeatedly like spinning an office chair. Glee easily turns into a frown and quick tears because by calling out to him, we have interrupted his thoughts or reverie. Hence I speak to him gently whenever necessary. And I never pat him from behind.

We still bring him out to visit friends although he may become quite a nuisance by turning on and off the fan or insisting that all doors be closed. Fortunately, he enjoys food and a bouncy sofa and can sit in one place watching faces amidst the soothing drone of adult conversation. As he grows older, he understands explanations better so it is easier to draw his attention away from unacceptable preferences.

Above all, I am thankful that he is not averse to affectionate gestures like hugs and lingering eye contact. It is through these means that I express my love for him. I have come to see that as long as I do not compare him with neurotypical children, I am able to appreciate him for his simplicity and his very beautiful smiles. Certainly I do not hope for him to grow up to become another strange man at the bus-stop whom people shun. However, even if he remains an oddity all his life, I want to be around to assure him of my continued love and acceptance.

The writer Brenda Tan has published a compilation of autism experiences entitled “Come into my world: 31 stories of Autism in Singapore”. This book is sold in autism schools, a few cafes, and online. For more information, visit

(This article was first published in April 2011 issue of Young Parents.)

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