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

Wednesday, March 2, 2016


While it's not easy for Calder to understand grammar rules, he's very happy to learn vocabulary, as I found out from our efforts on this assessment book (which I'd recommend for its clean layout and short exercises). Thanks to the internet, I'm able to show him pictures and videos of words new to him. In fact, I've taught him to do the google search himself.