Friday, December 23, 2016


Ethel went to my sister's house for sleepover. With the outspoken one gone, our home became a silent movie. But then I realised I could bring Calder anywhere I want. Being of little speech, he does not counter decisions, nor does he complain. I decided that I missed my favourite noodles, so we made our way  to Fortune Centre for lunch. Ethel wouldn't understand why one would go such distance for a bowl of noodles. But Calder loves travelling! So we ate my favourite vegetarian udon yesterday, and my favourite fish noodles today. Life is good!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Taxi Driver

A taxi driver we met in Taiwan has this to say about his relative (a cousin's son in his 20s) who has autism:

"You must always agree with him. You must treat him like he is your very best friend in the whole wide world, closer to him than his parents."

This taxi driver went on to hold Calder's hand during our tour of Taroko Gorge.

Saturday, December 17, 2016


Why all eateries should have booth seats:

1. With a fixed bench, the restless child with autism will not shift his chair backwards and more backwards until he gets in others' way or he's too far away from his food on the table.

2. You can seat the child at the corner to keep him from running away or sliding into another territory.

3. The corner makes the child with autism feel safe and cozy.

4. The corner makes Calder happy!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Taiwan Itinerary

Someone asked me to post our Taiwan itinerary on this blog so here it is. We travelled in a family of four (two adults, one 9-year-old girl and one 12-year-old boy with autism). I would recommend Toucheng Leisure Farm, Farglory Ocean Park and Dr Fish. Our trip spanned 21 to 30 Nov 2016.

Calder in Taiwan

My family went to Taiwan from 21 to 30 Nov this year (2016). It is our fourth trip involving plane travel. Even as I write about our Taiwan trip, I am very thankful that Calder can travel with us. I know of many families who find travelling with their autistic children too stressful. People with autism like things to stay the same. But travelling is about new places and new routine. Parents are also afraid their autistic children would melt down in unfamiliar public settings.

Calder likes familiarity. Fortunately, over the years, he has improved in his adaptability to be able to accept familiarity by concept. He may not get to stay in the same hotel, but so long as it is a hotel (characterised by clean beds and tidy set-ups), he is happy. During our 10 days in Taiwan, we stayed in 7 different accommodations. We had no problem moving him from one hotel to another. I must admit though, that Calder seemed to lose his delight of hotels as we reached the end of our trip. Perhaps because it had become apparent that we were not staying more than a night in each of them.

Then there is the flight experience. You know how it is that the change in air pressure can upset babies, and make them cry non-stop. I'm not surprised that children with autism, with their highly sensitive senses, would be likewise disturbed. Take-off feels like taking an elevator upwards, so that's fine for Calder. In fact, he looked positively excited when our plane ascended. It's the descent that is tricky because that's when ears start getting blocked. When Calder took his first plane, he was nine. I remember his panic when the plane descended. He dug his fingers into his ears as he cried out, "Take out! Take out!" Unfortunately, ears do not reliably pop once the plane touches down, so we had to pull him along as we cajoled him out from the plane cabin into the airport. The second time he took a plane, he was apparently more prepared so there was less fuss. I tried to help by giving him soft sweets to chew as the plane made its descent. In this fourth trip, Calder began looking worried when our plan descended onto Taiwan, and what I did was to constantly give him more pomegranate kernels to chew. I was less successful on our return to Singapore. Already insecure because of the descent, Calder took offence when I asked him not to push the screen too hard (he was correcting its angle) because it would disturb the passenger in front. It didn't help that the air stewardess spoke in sharp and urgent tone for Ethel to restore her arm rest and to stow her bag under the front seat. Meanwhile, Calder had begun his chanting, repeating phrases like "what happened to your neck", "twisting neck is ugly" as he is apt to do when he approaches distress. I gave him soft candies. He suddenly stood up and said "shee shee". Oops, no toilet when the plane is descending. I gave him more Ricola gummies. Fortunately the unease did not end in a meltdown. By the time we proceeded to pick up our luggage from the conveyor belt, Calder had regained his composure.

Although he appeared to have enjoyed himself, I wouldn't say Calder was entirely cooperative during our Taiwan trip. You see, after he entered adolescence a few months ago, he had been testing our patience by not doing what's expected of him. So we had to remind him several times before he would put on his socks and then shoes. It was as though he had lost his sense of hearing, or that instructions and their impact would disappear into the air as seconds tick by. And if we wished for him to walk with us, one of us had to hold his hand. Once that hand was released, he would turn and walk off in the opposite direction. This happened several times when we were in Taiwan. Unfortunately, when we expressed our disapproval over such behaviour, it could start another round of dismay mounting to distress and we had to do damage repair once again. Woe is he who ruffle Calder because he would then face the arduous task of calming the agitated. But I noticed a curious phenomenon - a blast of cold wind on the street of Taiwan could restore Calder's happiness.

So yes, going to Taiwan during the last week of November was a good idea because the weather was cool, even cold. (Calder does not take well to heat.) Our trip was also an enjoyable one for him because we went around mainly by train. Calder loves travelling by train, by bus, by taxi - in this order of preference. Then there were the many sweet drinks he could consume - the various juices on the plane, the drinks we wanted to try in Taiwan: papaya milk, bubble tea etc.; he even found his favourite Sjora mango-and-peach juice in our last hotel.

Let me list 7 things that made Calder smile in this Taiwan trip:

1. Plane ascent.
2. Taking trains.
3. Hotel rooms.
4. Sweet drinks.
5. Cold wind.
6. Spinning rides at Farglory Ocean Park. 7.Variety of food at buffet breakfast.

Considering the cheap food and amiable people (taxi drivers, especially) and ease of communication - yes, we are returning to Taiwan again.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Rain Man

Since Ethel has finished reading "Come into My World : 31 Stories of Autism in Singapore ",  I thought perhaps we can watch together the classic movie Rain Man. She decined "because movies about autism are always very sad" (she came to that conclusion from watching Jet Li's 海洋公园). I don't remember Rain Man being sad, so Ethel said she'd give it a try. But we saw on the video box the rating - NC16 (not suitable for kids below 16) so hubby and I ended up watching it after the children have gone to bed. Oh how I identify with Tom's exasperation having to give in to Dustin's habits despite ill logic and great inconvenience. Right now Calder is insisting that we watch him in order for him to finish any task. We even have to fetch him from the toilet. Watching Rain Man made me wonder - perhaps Calder is as powerless to change his system as Dustin. And so I become more patient with him. At the back of my mind, unfortunately, linger misgivings whether giving in isn't encouraging bad habits. It's a big dilemma I believe many parents face - to be kind or to be firm. Ethel would enjoy Dustin's performance, I thought. But when I reached the end of the movie, I came to the conclusion - no, I shan't let her watch this movie. Because I don't want her to think the final and best solution is to put her brother in an institution.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016


"Finish already, come out, ok?"
"Finish, come out!"
"Calder, finish - come out!"
"Calder come out!"
"Calder Kam Chuen!"

The exasperation of a Mom who couldn't get her autistic adolescent to come out of the male toilet. Oh, if only he could be tied to a string that I can pull to get him out of the Gents. It's at times like this that I wish all public pools have unisex toilets.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016


Calder has taken to doing things wrong and waiting for us to correct him. He puts on his pants back to front, wears his shirt inside out, even attempts to spoon food into his cup. Then he watches our reaction. Are we facing the most primitive form of teenage rebellion?

Monday, October 3, 2016


There's nothing that gets to a Mom than when her 12-year-old empties his bladder entirely into his pants and laughs over it, and does it successively. Makes you want to lie down and not do anything for a long long time.


When I borrow books for Calder, I choose those with uncluttered design, with short text because Calder's habit is to read aloud from beginning to end in one sitting. Calder also likes books with photographs.   Found this wonderful educational series on how things are made: Step-by-step Transformations. This morning, without prompting, Calder picks up the one on orange juice and starts reading it with glee. Rare initiative. I rewarded him with an orange.

Friday, September 30, 2016


Is it possible to speak without moving the lips? Calder has been doing that lately, so much so that I have to ask him to repeat  5 times before I could figure out what he said.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


If being frozen is PAUSE mode, I should write also about Calder's REWIND mode. Recently he has taken to reversing his actions. He sits and stands up then sits down again. He puts food into his mouth, spits it out then puts it back. Today I asked him to keep the laundry and actually saw him trying to fling his Daddy's dried pants back over the bamboo. He walks 3 steps forward then 2 steps back, so that I constantly have to wait for him to catch up. Eventually I figured it may be easier to walk with my arm locked over his neck. This morning, I asked him, "Calder, are you a trolley that I must pull along?

Tuesday, September 27, 2016


Something strange is happening to Calder who turns 12 this Nov. As he enters adolescence, he loses his need for routine. Unfortunately he swings to the other extreme - he does not take the next step without instruction. I have to tell him to gargle after brushing his teeth, then nod at him to indicate now he can wipe his face etc. Otherwise he gets stuck in the toilet. Once, 9-year-old Ethel timed him to see how long he'd remain in the toilet (yes he even waits for us to tell him to wash hands and to exit from the toilet). After 19 minutes, we couldn't take it anymore and started talking about delicious chicken wings to lure him out! Calder used to be our most reliable janitor making sure unused appliances were turned off, picking up used clothes to put in the laundry basket etc. These disappeared with a puff some two weeks ago and we are left with a robot often frozen mid-task. This calls for patient endurance. May God have mercy on us.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016


Calder has developed a strange gait that I call the Twist. Instead of placing his foot one before the other, he turns one foot inward. Looks almost like a dance, and comical when we are in good mood. I wonder how long he's going to keep up with this.

Saturday, September 10, 2016


Today I saw Calder lightly pushing his toy train on the floor and decided to test his knowledge of the MRT route (complete with sound effects). Sure enough, he could tell me that the MRT goes from Kovan to Hougang to Buangkok to Sengkang. Then I took 2 figurines (including Kevin the minion) and decided to let them get off the train to explore the vicinity. And I asked Calder where we can eat at these places, what we can buy. Amazing details came out like Passion fruit frozen yogurt from KFC,  almond coffee cake from Kovan. He even remembered Soup Restaurant at Hougang which we hardly eat at. Is this speech therapy or what?

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Rock Climbing

One Saturday, Calder and I joined another 23 pairs of caregiver-child for rock climbing at Climb Central. Our first time doing this and since it was heavily subsidized, I thought: Why not?

As usual, Calder was very happy to go out, especially on a train ride, and a ride to Stadium MRT too, a station he's familiar with from the few times we joined the Runninghour for weekday jogs. As instructed by the organiser, I asked Calder to go to the toilet. Had to call him to come out of the Gents when done. Then I asked him to sit on the floor and drink from his water bottle while I used the Ladies.

When we arrived at Kallang Wave Mall, we saw many people scaling the walls. Headed to the party room as instructed. Nice and quiet place. There're snack packs for us, how lovely. Fitted in climbing shoes and harness, Calder downed his packet of Milo and biscuits and cake. Met familiar faces from his autism school, and I started chatting with the parents. 

Our turn. Out to the walls and Calder started climbing. Up and up. Nearly halfway, he became uncertain - unsure where to put his hands and feet, and getting tired, I presume. He looked down at me and I cheered: Calder, up up up! And being his cooperative self, he continued climbing.

Now came the tricky part. The belayer (girl holding the rope) asked me to get him to move to the left (he was advancing rightwards). I told her, "Sorry he doesn't know left from right." Never mind. And when he finally reached the top, the girl instructed, "Let go, Calder!" And I had to explain: He doesn't know what "let go" means.  So Calder climbed his way down.

Mommy's turn. Up and up. Since Calder was watching, I was determined to do it well. Halfway, I began to feel the strain of my own weight and thought: Maybe this is good enough. But I need to show a good example to my boy, so another step up and another pull. Gosh, the things I do for my son.

When I turned my head to see how he was down there, it was with delight to see him on the wall to my right, making his second climb. We are doing this together - a magical moment of realisation. The belayer had assured me I could let go and rest while she hung on to my rope, so I took a break to shout encouragements to Calder. When he reached my level, we continued climbing together. And reached the top. This time, I could demonstrate to teach him how to let go. And I witnessed his glee at the ease of descent.

"Calder, do you want to do again or is it enough?" Enough. "Is it enough or do you want to do again?" I had to phrase my question in 2 different ways to make sure he wasn't merely echoing me. Certain that he had had enough (frankly I couldn't imagine going up another time myself), we went back to the party room to remove climbing shoes and harness, then came out and sat a while watching other people climb, and left for lunch.

I was very proud when the belayer commented that Calder's good at climbing. And very proud to have reached the top myself. This is a good sport to engage in, if only it's not so expensive. I hope establishments like this would give discounts to people with special needs. Very thankful to the parent who organised this (having to attend to us while taking care of her restless boy). I think we should have more of such healthy gatherings of families with special needs, for the camaraderie of meeting like "warriors" and the consolation that we're in this together.

Beautiful Mind

Today Calder participated in an audition in his school, held by Beautiful Mind Charity (BMC). I thought it was a vocal audition so didn't bring his piano scores. But he went straight to the piano when he entered the audition room. And started playing "You are My Sunshine" which he has been practising for his class' Teachers' Day presentation. There was a panel of lady judges who looked Korean who had most beatific smiles like they belong to a choir of angels. They asked him to play other songs which he did imperfectly since he didn't have the scores. One of them asked me if he can read music. "No, he can't. If you point to a note and ask him what it is, he wouldn't be able to answer you. But he associates the score with finger positions and he uses memory to play the song," I explained. They asked him "how old are you" and as usual he answered "I'm fine thank you". Then they decided to test his vocal potential. Can he play and sing? No, he cannot, I answered. And when the music teacher-in-charge moved to the piano preparing to provide accompaniment, I told her it may be better to let him sing by himself. Because usually he cannot do 2 things - in this case listen and sing at the same time. We asked him to sing "You are My Sunshine" but he thought we wanted him to play the song again so I gestured for him to come over and I put an arm around him to keep him still. He had been pacing around and beaming (he responds to mood; I supposed the angels must have been radiating very positive vibes). He leaned over to smell my hair as is his habit and the judges exclaimed, "Look at his smile! So cute!" And the music teacher-in-charge verified that yes, he is a very happy boy. So Calder sang "You are My Sunshine" and when he reached the high notes, he dived an octave lower, as is his habit. Then they asked him to sing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" to piano accompaniment.  The tricky part is the music changed pitch at every line. Calder sang at the same pitch throughout. So if you ask me if he has a chance of being accepted, I think: Ha! Only God knows. And indeed, I pray that whatever the outcome, it'll mean  joy for Calder and the family. At the end of the audition, I put out my thumb and cheered: "Good job, Calder!" And he beamed. Maybe he'll get accepted after all, because he has a beautiful mind.

Monday, August 22, 2016


I taught Calder how to turn on the video to watch his favourite shows. It involved many steps, including setting English subtitles, changing volume, using the relevant remote control, even pointing the remote control in the right direction. But today I witnessed Calder’s glee when the TV "obeyed" him and know it's all worth it.

Saturday, July 30, 2016


What do you do if your boy with autism is too big to go into the ladies with you, yet you need to use the toilet when in public? Recently I started asking Calder to sit on the floor and drink from his water bottle while waiting for Mommy. Seating is a feeble attempt at anchoring while drinking is to occupy him so he doesn't get distracted and run off. So far so good. Meanwhile I pray that no one would approach him to tell him he cannot sit there. Might be a good idea to install seats near public toilets.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016


Today I taught Calder to keep socks. First he has to decide which are the matching pairs. Then he has to fold the two socks into one. And keep them in the right place, depending on who they belong.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Pocket File

Yesterday I got Calder to slot music sheets into his piano file (old pieces removed and new ones moved to the front ). There were many cries of "Mommy help me!" Definitely a great training of patience and gentleness (must carefully slip, not shove the paper in).

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


Today I got Calder to eat pomegranate with chopsticks. He would target one and prod until he managed to pick it up. What perseverance! Good training for fine motor skills.  

Thursday, May 19, 2016


It was one of Calder's routines, after turning off the switch, to wait for the fan to stop spinning before exiting his bedroom. He used to get flustered when wind from his open window kept the blades turning. But this morning, he strode out of his bedroom without a second glance at the still-moving fan. Habits can change, even for a child with autism.

Monday, May 9, 2016


A few days ago, I reminded Ethel to practice her piano before Calder returned from school. Otherwise, she would make impatient sounds when she couldn’t get the music right, and Calder would get all excited and start flapping around, and then she would scream at him to stop. 

Before I walked away, I heard Ethel quietly say, “I love Calder.”

That really stopped me in my track. 

For a long time, I’d been trying to explain to my girl that her elder brother could not help his reactions - turning hyper and hilarious when she’s upset. She was convinced that he meant to insult her. What usually happens, unfortunately, is that she would get upset over piano (she’s a perfectionist who wants to get every note right), he’d start flapping his hands and hovering around her, she’d scream at him to go away and most likely slam the door, and Calder would be banished to the bedroom. This happened again and again and I watched Ethel becoming more and more antagonistic toward her brother. It became so bad that if he even as peer closely at her, she would turn black with suspicion and shout at him.

It’s a balancing act mediating between two children, especially if one is outspoken and the other almost mute. Ethel challenged me, “Why are you always speaking for koko?” I answered, “That’s because koko cannot speak for himself.” But I know I cannot do this often, because my girl would feel more and more alienated and would dislike her brother more and more. I can only pray for God to draw them together.

So when Ethel spontaneously confessed that she loves Calder, I had to ask, “Why did you say that?”

“Because Calder is nice.”

Ah, she must have come to this conclusion from the recent session playing with him on the bed. Between my two children, “playing” usually means Ethel ordering Calder to do something and him complying. In this case, she had caught him humming, and so got him to perform the song while lying on the bed, one leg balanced on another. They had not played together for a while. No wonder Ethel could not see and appreciate her brother’s sweet disposition.

Back to Scene One, where Ethel continued:

“The only thing I don’t like about him is he laughs when I cry.”

Praise God for her enlightenment. 

And praise God for love that covers all wrongs.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sunshine after the Rain

By Brenda Tan

I keep a prayer journal. One day, I found myself writing: Dear Lord, thank you for giving me Calder, who is such a precious treasure. When I wrote this thanksgiving, I realised what a long way God had brought me. 

Calder has autism. What this means is that he cannot communicate well, does not know what is socially acceptable, and he loves repetition. These symptoms of autism presented us with many challenges when he was small.

When he was small, he was like the hamster at home. When we called him, he didn't respond. When we talked to him, he didn't understand. And he couldn't tell us what he was thinking about. So we were forever guessing why he was upset. And because he couldn't understand our words, it was hard to calm him when he was distressed.

Socially, he stuck out like a sore thumb. He pushed his way into lifts and buses. He stepped on people's toes. He grabbed food that belonged to strangers. He knocked on cars with drivers inside. He wanted to close all open doors. He would suddenly flap his arms and gave people a fright. He laughed even though he had caused offence. As a result, we often had to apologise on his behalf.

He craved for repetition and routine. Left to his own device, he would turn the light on and off, keep flushing the toilet, open and close doors, jab at lift buttons . The way to school must follow the same route. He must have kaya bread first, then jam bread. He found all kinds of patterns in life and without telling us what they were, insisted that we kept the patterns. So he was like a landmine - we never knew we had stepped on one until it exploded in anger.

The difficulties we faced included calming him when he melt down in public, finding him when he'd run away, cleaning up when he soiled himself (he couldn't tell us he needed the toilet), staying patient when he went into states of obsession e.g. putting his shoes on and off, turning the radio on and off, making us repeat after him etc.

Life became so bizarre that I lived in constant dread and apprehension - afraid of Calder's next meltdown, afraid that I couldn't stay calm enough to be a good Mom. There were so many problems I couldn't solve I had to call out to God for help and cling to him to carry me through. During this period,  God comforted me with his word. In John 16:33, he assured me that he knew of my struggles.  He said, "In this world you would have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." And when Calder's meltdowns weighed heavy on my heart, God sent me his promise in Isaiah 54:13 - "... your children will be taught by the Lord, and great will be their peace. "

During this period, I was inspired to write a book collating the experiences of many families with autism. And so I published "Come into My World: 31 Stories of Autism in Singapore". This book project turned out to be the therapy I badly needed.

And God began to work wonders. Instead of staying a passive victim, I became an active advocate sharing my experience so that more people can understand what autism is. God also opened the door to ministries that enabled me to step out of the firefighting mode in which I was trapped. I became a worship leader in church and a group leader in Bible Study Fellowship, and found myself richly nourished as I served.

Calder also began to improve. At 7 years old, he called me Mommy for the first time and seemed to finally registered and appreciated our presence. He learned to read and write and began to understand explanations. He became more flexible to change and now enjoys going out to new places. He picked up skills we never dreamt him capable of, like inline skating and playing the piano. Most importantly, he mellowed down so much that he hardly throws tantrum these days. He is no longer a hamster or a landmine. He is my sunshine who delights in simple things like travelling on a bus, eating a cake, watching videos of himself. 

Calder still have many weaknesses.  For example, he still cannot answer questions well. He cannot sit still for long.  He still wants to jab at lift buttons. But I see the miracles in his life and know that God will complete the good work he has begun in my son and I.

(The above is a testimony presented in Yio Chu Kang Chapel on 24 Apr 2016, in conjunction with World Autism Awareness month.)

Brenda Tan worships at Yio Chu Kang Gospel Hall. She published "Come into My World : 31 Stories of Autism in Singapore" ( in 2010, and is now writing another book on independent adults with autism. If you know personally autistic persons who are working and who are married, please contact Brenda at

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Orange 2

Today I decided to extend the steps to teach Calder to eat orange independently. I instructed him to put a plate (for orange peels) and a bowl (for peeled orange) on the dining table. Taught him to wash (must rub) the orange and the tricky part - to slit the orange skin using the plastic ring. When I found him making random slits on the orange skin, I took a pen and drew lines for him. He was not able to cut along the lines accurately but that's ok. It just meant more strenuous peeling. At one point, Calder rubbed his right eye with his juice-stained fingers and had to he rescued with a wipe of wet towel. After eating the orange, Calder rinsed the plate, bowl and plastic ring, and put them back. Voila!

Saturday, April 16, 2016


Last week, it began to rain when we were about to set off to buy lunch. Do I walk Calder under my umbrella? But one of us would get wet. I decided to teach him to use an umbrella. A full-length umbrella is easy to use - just press a lever to open and pull the umbrella close. But Calder needed to be instructed what to do with that umbrella. Holding it by the hook, for instance, and putting it right above his head. It's amusing to see him happily skipping off with that umbrella and holding it Mary-Poppin style (high above his head).

Today I decided to let him use a foldable umbrella for the sunny walk from Caldecott MRT station to RDA (Riding for the Disabled Association). Many more steps involved - Release the strap, pull to extend shaft, push beyond the spring to open canopy. To close - pull to retract canopy, bump handle to retract shaft, wound the fabric around the strap, stick the velcro together to keep umbrella compact.  Definitely need more practice. I'm going to keep this umbrella in his bag for frequent use.

Friday, April 15, 2016


Calder likes oranges. I would usually slit (see picture for the handy plastic ring for slitting) the orange skin and let him do the peeling himself. He has to be careful not to peel too near his face, because orange juice may squirt into his eyes. Today, before slitting his orange, I decided to play throw-and-catch. So Calder and I took turns to throw the cold orange to each other. I limited it to 10 rounds. After all, the orange may fall to the ground and there's just so much bruising it can take before it looks too awful to eat. 😵

Thursday, April 14, 2016


I thought through the process and created a shower chart for Calder. Calder has memorised the steps but the chart remains useful - I use it to point to the next step if he stops midway (e.g. distracted by the flow of water over his head). Calder still requires supervision because he is not thorough in his washing. The shower chart stays pasted on our bathroom door.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


Ethel brought home some balloons from a birthday party. By the next day, there was no more helium to keep them afloat. But then Calder and I found good use for them. We took one and tried to keep it up in the air. Calder didn't know what the game was about at first. Instructions like "Don't let it fall to the ground!" didn't work. What worked was a direct "Beat the balloon!". And from what Mommy was doing, he figured he had to hit the balloon upwards. We began to perspire and feel hot but the laughter was worth the exertion. Balloons are easier to manage than balls because of their slow motion. And a balloon tied with string is easier to retrieve.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


Calder saw me eating longans this morning and so I invited him to join me. First, peel off the skin. Next, pop the longan into mouth. Chew gently. Spit out the seed! I tried teaching him to eat cherry before but he swallowed so many cherry seeds I had to give up. Longan is probably better training material because it's not easy for this big a seed to slip into the throat. I must confess, though, that I was prepared to call it a day if he so much as swallowed one seed! He wanted to hold the longan in his hand to chew or peel off the flesh but that would mean longan juice dribbling down his arm, so nope - he had to eat it the adult way. By the 5th longan, he was able to spit out a clean seed. 

Monday, April 11, 2016


I've been trying to teach Calder to use the sharpener but with disastrous effects - he would either break the thin pencil lead or dislodge the sharpener from its container. Today it occurred to me to let him sharpen thick colour pencils instead. Wow, there's so much skills involved, including holding sharpener and pencil the right way, pushing the pencil in while sharpening, turning the pencil and not the sharpener etc. Even emptying of the sharpener container is a skill (e.g. not to drop sharpener into dustbin). Calder gleefully laboured over 21 thick colour pencils before he tried sharpening a thin one - lo and behold! That thin pencil lead stayed intact. Successful learning!

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Vocabulary 2

This is the next book I'm using to increase Calder's repertoire of words. Font is big and picture is provided for some questions. Layout can be cleaner but a plus point is the variety of exercises, including matching which trains Calder to use the ruler. Found the book in Popular bookstore.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Come Teach Our Children

When you have a child with autism, you enter a world of bizarre parenthood. Bizarre because your kid does not behave like other kids. Bizarre also because of the high expenses involved in education. My son's school fee is $350 each month compared to my daughter's  $13. And his school bus costs $250 compared to his sister's $140. Yes, my son Calder is the one who has autism.

The early years following  diagnosis will see many parents plunging into the sea of therapies to save their kids from their alarming deficits. Speech therapy, for instance, is the must-have for such kids since they cannot talk. Then there is occupational therapy to help improve their poor motor skills. And Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) to train them to focus on tasks. Or Floortime to help them relate to other people. Craniotherapy? Music therapy? Hippotherapy? A shadow teacher? GFCF diet? Vitamin supplements? And the list goes on.

An hour of therapy easily costs $100. Imagine the expense of various treatments put together. ABA therapy, for one, recommends 40 hours of training per week. Once I found myself talking to a mother who has placed her autistic girl in a privately run ABA school:

"How much is the monthly school fee?" I asked her, "$2k?"
"No, $5k, " she replied and I nearly keeled over.
"How do you afford that?!" I exclaimed.  And she told me they sold their house.

Indeed parents have to earn much more to afford special education. Ironically,  with a special-needs child, usually one parent would have to quit his or her job to take care of the kid.

In my family, after a few years of splurging, it became clear to my husband and I that it's not realistic to carry on that level of expenditure, so Calder's therapies tapered off one by one.

Hence when I shared my parenting experience at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, and was asked how tertiary students can help the autism community, immediately I answered: "Come teach our children".

And so the One Child One Skill project was conceived. In this volunteer scheme, pairs of tertiary students visit the home of an autistic child to teach the child a skill over 8 sessions. The skill was decided by the parent, depending on that child's learning needs.

Calder learned how to play Snake & Ladder this way. He looked forward to the volunteers' visit every week. And during the one-and-half hours of teaching, I could sit down for a leisurely breakfast or efficiently complete some household chore. In this way, One Child One Skill fulfills its goals of teaching the autistic child a skill and supporting the caregiver via respite. The 3rd goal of One Child One Skill is to enable volunteers to understand autism better. What better way than to go right to the home to interact with the autistic child?

One Child One Skill is now in its 6th run. The number of families who sign up for this scheme always outnumbers the number of pairs of volunteers available . It is my wish (and the wish of many fellow parents) that more volunteers step in to fill the gap.

If you teach at a tertiary institution and could mobilise your students for this scheme, please contact Brenda Tan at More information on One Child One Skill can be obtained at .

Brenda Tan is the writer of Come into My World : 31 Stories of Autism in Singapore ( ).


Calder is smiling as he watches this dvd. Readeez teaches English using lyrics. Lovely compositions with a cosy sense of humour. Available in Popular bookstores.

Friday, April 1, 2016


Calder likes the barley Huai San soup that I cook weekly, so I typed out the recipe for him to help make the soup. The recipe is on the fridge for easy reading. I would ask Calder to read and follow the instructions step by step. And he is proud when I announce to the family that the soup was made by him.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Signing Time

Signing Time is Calder's favourite video. He is happy to watch it everyday, so I bought the whole 2 series - 26 shows in all (around 30 min each). Sign language is useful as reinforcement for verbal instructions  (e.g. wait, walk, sleep etc.). The video features nice songs and helps vocabulary learning (word being signed is flashed a few times). Turn on English subtitles for optimal language learning.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

My Brother has Autism

I have two children. Ethel, now 5, has so much to say. Calder, 8, is autistic.

Ethel was born before Calder was diagnosed as moderately autistic. This is a very good thing because autism is believed to be partly hereditary.

Like many other parents, we would have had second thoughts about begetting another child if the first one is autistic.  So, Ethel is a present. A present for me because she enables me to experience "normal" parenthood. A present for Calder because she is his only friend, a friend who cares enough to pray spontaneously for him.

It is not easy to be Calder's sister. Although she is younger, she is expected to give in to her brother because he is easily upset and difficult to pacify when upset. Being Calder's sister means having to watch Calder's mood before expecting an outing, having to give up many outings, having to hurry home when Calder gets agitated.

Ethel is so used to these that we could actually ask her, "Do you think we can go out today?" and she would look at Calder with his flustered face and desperate chantings and pronounce, "No, I don't think so."

I give talks on my parenting experience. Once, a member of the audience asked, "Is the sister deprived because she has a brother with autism?"

In a way, yes. Ethel is deprived of her rights to be childish. Because her parents have their hands full dealing with the brother's meltdowns, tantrums on her parts are never well-tolerated. She knows she cannot hoard her parents' attention because Calder gets upset when ignored. And when Calder is moody, the atmosphere is tense, and parents speak sternly not only to Calder but to her too. She has to learn not to take these personally.

She has to learn to grow up quickly. As a result, she is a precocious 5-year-old. One of her preschool teachers actually told me, "In all my years of teaching, I have never come across a student as sensible as Ethel."

Frankly, I think when a family has a child with special needs, the person who gains the most is the sibling. Caring for a special-needs person builds a compassionate nature. If I am an employer, I would advertise for siblings of people with special needs because this is where you find responsible and kind staff.

Of course, I have also heard of the opposite effect: resentment and bitterness and defiance against what the sibling sees as unfair parenting.

In my case, my children are fortunate because I work part-time. And I have arranged their schooling such that I get to spend time with them individually. Ethel goes to morning school while Calder's school starts in the afternoon. This grants me many opportunities to show I love them.

I believe when children feel loved, they would grow up well, whether or not they have special needs.

(This article was written 3 years ago and published in As I reread the article, I'm deeply thankful that Calder is no longer easily agitated. Click here for a video of what Ethel thinks of her brother.)

Friday, March 11, 2016


When he dashed off, I did not give chase immediately. I was busy keeping the wet umbrella in my bag. I thought he would be stalled by the gantry at the mrt station. But he dashed through when another passenger tapped her card. And ran for the lift. That's when I started running. Unfortunately, the lift door closed before I could get in. It was then that I heard the approaching train. What if he runs into the train? What if I can't catch up in time? In that split second, my whole head of hair could have turned white. I headed for the escalator and ran up to the platform. He was sitting at the usual place. The train that had just left was heading for the wrong direction, not the direction home. That's why he didn't get in. Thank God.

I took his hand and gave it a hard slap. "Calder, wait for Mommy. When you go into a lift, must hold Mummy's hand, ok?" He said ok but seriously I have no idea if he understood. The next time he went into a lift by himself, I made him come out and go in again holding my hand.

He is my six-year-boy who has autism.          (from my journal dated 26 Jan 2011)

Wednesday, March 9, 2016


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