Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Word Search

Saw a pair of autistic twins completing word searches and thought that's a hobby I can introduce Calder. Good for vocabulary and focus. So I downloaded a free app and tried it out with Calder while waiting for his school bus. Had thought he would have difficulty spotting words spelled backwards but I was so wrong. Maybe they don't read left to right.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Manual for Missing Child

What you can do when your child is lost:

A. Report police by going to a police post or calling 1800-2550000. Police will ask for your child's height and weight so have these info updated and on hand. The police will also ask if you'd like to publicise the search on their social media platforms so decide this between spouse and you ahead of time.

B. Find a clear picture of your child (on handphone?) and use it to ask people in the vicinity of they have seen your child.

C. Disseminate the picture to family members, friends or neighbours who can help search, indicating clearly: 

1. What your child is wearing.
2. Where your child was last seen.
3. Your child's favourite places.
4. Your contact number.

C. Use social media to expand the search party. You may use this template to post on Facebook, together with a clear picture of your child:

My (age)-year-old (son/daughter) is lost. (Special condition, e.g. He has autism and cannot speak well.) Last seen at (venue) around (time). Wearing (description of clothes and bag if any). (He/she) likes (favourite places). If you see (him/her), please stay with (him/her) and contact me at (phone number). Please do not call me otherwise.

D. If you suspect your child of having taken public transport, report missing child with SBS Transit by going to the control room of either MRT station or bus interchange.

E. Have someone at home with door open in case your child makes his or her way home.

Some ways to make it easier for your child to be found:

A. Take a clear picture of your child before bringing him or her out, especially to crowded locations. That way, you have ready picture with child in current clothes should your child be lost.

B. Attach your contact particulars to your child. This can be in the form of information tag hung over the neck or placed in his or her bag. For durability, you can consider a dog tag with telephone number engraved, worn as necklace or tied by shoelaces to shoes.

C. Have your child memorise your contact number.

D. Have your child carry a tracking device so you can use GPS to locate him or her.

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 www.come-into-my-world.com.

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

Friday, February 3, 2017

Treasure Hunt

You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. John 14:14

This was my devotion verse for today. I was ready to start listing my needs but then got busy preparing the kids for school. Ethel went off on the school bus first. Then I woke Calder. When he had taken his breakfast etc. we prepared to go downstairs to wait for his school bus. 7.30am.

The door was opened and Calder stepped out. Wait. Let me grab a book for him to read in case the bus comes late. But when I emerged from the flat, Calder was nowhere in sight. Perhaps the lift door opened and he went in and because there were other people in there, he couldn't wait for me. So I went down in another lift. But he was not downstairs. And not waiting at the void deck table for his school bus. Could he have gotten out of the lift at another floor? So I took the lift to Level 18 (highest floor) and went down level by level to look for him. No sign of Calder. Maybe he walked along the corridor to another part of the flat. So I took another look from Level 18. And another. Or maybe the school bus came and he went up the bus? I messaged the bus aunty. Nope, they are still on the way. The school bus arrived. No Calder. So I asked them to leave.

By now my speculations had become morbid. Was he abducted? When I finally find him, would he be without a limb? Has someone hidden him in their flat?

This morning, Calder finally came out of the toilet on his own. For many months, he needed people to call him out. Otherwise he would be stuck in the toilet. It was as if there was an invisible fence at the doorway. Over the past few days, I tried a game of patience with him. I quietly waited for him to come out while he quietly waited in the toilet for me to call him out. In the end, my patience won. And this morning, he emerged from the toilet by himself. Now he is perfect. But my perfect boy has disappeared.

I went back home and asked a family of neighbours if they'd seen him (perhaps he came back home while I was searching for him). No. Their domestic helper would look out for his return while the family helped me search. This family consists of a young couple and two preschoolers and a toddler.

Searched the vicinity, calling out his name intermittently. At one point, I even shouted, "Calder! Come back to Mommy!" When Calder was small and very difficult with his frequent meltdowns, I ever thought how pleasant life would be without such a character in the family. But Calder mellowed and became such a sweet boy, and as I searched for him today, I felt like I'd lost my treasure. I'd never want him out of my life if I can help it.

Left my number with the fruit vendor, with the porridge seller. Wrote it on the palm of a neighbour walking her dog etc. Messaged hubby for a picture of Calder in his school uniform and started him worrying. I finally found the picture on my handphone and posted it on Facebook so that friends in the area can help me look out for him. The post was reposted 1K times (wow) until friends not linked to me by Facebook also knew of Calder missing. And so Calder's ex-swimming coach messaged me.  And his new bowling coach called.  I received more messages of consolation telling me not to give up, that people are praying, and some have driven out to patrol...

From a distance, I saw someone dressed in Calder's colours walking towards Punggol Park. So I crossed the road and walked that way too. Received a call from an unknown number. Hello, this is Shin Min Daily. We read on Facebook that your son is missing. Can you give us some details. Thinking maybe the media can help, I complied while trying to keep my voice calm. Then the reporter asked, "Can we have Calder's Chinese name?" No, Calder does not recognise his Chinese name. "Can we have your Chinese name?" Calder definitely does not recognise me by my Chinese name. "Because we are a Chinese press." Oh. I realised it's for publicity. By now, my voice was breaking. If you cannot help in a concrete way, never mind. And I ended the call. Incoming call from sister-in-law. No, I cannot take any more calls. I don't want to do any more explaining. So I let it vibrate (my phone is forever in silent mode).

I searched all the nearby places Calder could have gone. Hubby had taken urgent leave and had made a police report. If Calder had boarded a bus from our nearby bus stop, he would be heading for Changi Airport so I asked hubby to contact Transitlink. Nobody picked up the call. So I walked over to Hougang mrt station, flashed Calder's picture and asked them to contact the other stations. Hubby asked, what else can we do now? It's been three hours. Ask MP for help? So I emailed MP with picture of Calder.

10.30am! Calder drank a lot of water this morning. He needs to use the toilet, but he doesn't know to ask. Would he have wet his pants? I wanted to cry.

I remembered the devotion verse of the day:

You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. John 14:14

Having exhausted the places I could search, I went home, knelt down and prayed: Lord, I can ask for anything right? Please help me find Calder. Amen. As fears arose, I found myself asking: God, surely you are not just a good feeling people get when they believe. You are alive and able to help me. So help me please. And then: I don't want to be afraid. Help me trust you. Help me trust you. As I walked out again, I prayed (more like a chant since I prayed this over and over again): Please keep him safe. Please give him your peace. Please lead him home.

Then the call came. 11.06am. Are you Brenda? Calder's Mom? This is Changi Airport. Yes, Calder is with us. He tried to cross the arrival gate. I found your name card in his bag.

The first thing I asked the airport police: Can you help me bring him to the toilet?

Hubby and I took a cab to Changi Airport. Calder was at the information counter. If he was sitting like a stone, the stone became flesh when he saw us. The airport police who found him was on the phone with the police inspector who had taken up our case. I quickly updated friends before my handphone battery died. Calder got up and went to enjoy the nearby lift (this means pressing the button and flapping in delight as the lift comes up).

Calder! What are you doing in Changi Airport? You should be in school right? He grinned. Later, when we had to go down to Ang Mo Kio police station to close the case, he couldn't answer the inspector's questions. That's not surprising. He is autistic. Our guess is that he'd followed commuters down the lift and up Bus 27. By this time, Calder was no longer smiling. In fact he looked like he wanted to cry. Maybe because he could not answer the many questions we asked him. Or maybe it's delayed reaction to the fright of being lost. Or some other awful reason. Who knows, since he cannot talk? But he's not injured so we thank God for that. One of his shoes had fallen apart though. He must have been walking or skipping a lot while in Changi Airport.

When we reached home, it was 3.30pm. I didn't feel like cooking dinner anymore. My legs had turned jelly whether from dread or fatigue. In fact I felt like I'd taken 100,000 steps. So I went to sleep. When I awoke, Ethel was back from CCA. First thing she said: What happened to Calder? (She must have heard from the friend of a friend of a friend.)

From this saga, I learned:

1. The name card saves the day. Worn out though it looks, good thing it is still in Calder's bag. I had  scribbled on the reverse side: This belongs to my son Calder who has autism.

2. Always have a clear pix of Calder around, best in the clothes he often wears e.g. school uniform.

3. Get a handphone with longer battery life.