“I didn’t know I could be plunged into such depths of helplessness”

April 2 is World Autism Day and to shed light on the condition, we asked author Brenda Tan to open her heart and tell us what it feels like to be a mum with an autistic child.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

April 2 is World Autism Day and to shed light on the condition, we asked author Brenda Tan to open her heart and tell us what it feels like to be a mum with an autistic child.

My Reading Room

My son Calder has autism.

When he was lost, he wouldn’t cry, but would walk on and on. He wouldn’t seek help because he can’t talk well, and lacks the motivation to talk. He isn’t good at answering questions, either. Once we let him wear a watch to school; he came home without the watch and couldn’t tell us where it was, or what had happened to it. He cannot answer “why” questions, so we never really know the reasons for his meltdowns, or why he’s trying to blink away tears.

Calder was diagnosed with autism shortly after his third birthday. Because he was my first child, I didn’t think much of him not talking and not responding to our calls. I thought he was being “cool” or “bochap” (indifferent). At 18 months, we brought him for a scheduled health check. The paediatrician noticed he didn’t look at her when she called his name. Then she tested him, “Calder, where is your nose?” He just gazed at her. She advised us to take him to the Child Development department of the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

Is there something wrong with my child, I wondered. My aunties had told me that boys tend to speak later. I read up on speech delay, and was led to the term ‘autism’. Yes, not only did Calder not talk, he did not play imaginatively. If we gave him a toy car, he would turn the car over and spin the wheels. He liked to watch the fan spinning. and if no one stopped him, he could spend the whole day turning switches on and off.

Craving For Repetition

Calder would also get upset when routines changed. Kaya bread must be followed by jam bread. TV must be followed by music. Even when he was watching shows, the TV could not be switched off until the credits had finished rolling. later, when I had a daughter (Calder’s younger sister, Ethel) who kept asking me to play with her, I realised how different Calder was, being so comfortable by himself, and never seeking company from others.

I realised Calder fulfilled the three main symptoms of autism: limited speech, limited social interaction and a craving for repetition.

He also had sensory issues. He was afraid of loud sounds, so we had to buy a quiet vacuum cleaner. He would bolt from toilets if someone used the hand-dryer. The loud airplane toilet flush was most frightful to him. and he could not abide having his hair cut. We had to use count-downs to keep him seated for his haircut, and someone had to hold him to keep him from flinching. and he had meltdowns easily when it was hot, crowded or noisy.

At three, Calder underwent a two-hour psychological assessment. The diagnosis: Moderate autism. I was not surprised, but was expecting mild autism, not moderate. If I was dismayed, it did not show. We completed the hospital visit, and that very day, we called up to find early intervention programme schools for Calder. 

The sadness came the next day, when I was bathing Ethel, who was then six months old. Ethel gazed at me quietly, as my tears flowed into her bathtub. The next year was a daze, as I adjusted to the realisation that my son has special needs. I decided to learn how other families helped kids with autism, and interviewed mums, dads, and people with autism, and published Come Into My World: 31 Stories Of Autism In Singapore.

My Reading Room

From Tears To Hope

Calder is now 12. Through these years, we have coped with a myriad of challenges. Dropping outing plans, making a beeline for home because he seemed to be unravelling. Figuring out the routines he had identified, and keeping to them so he wouldn’t be upset. Keeping calm when he had meltdowns. Keeping calm so he wouldn’t have a meltdown. praying hard when he wandered off. How do you teach a child when he has such limited language skills?

But Calder improved. at seven, he called me Mummy for the first time. He learned to gargle – not swallowing the toothpaste, not letting the water cascade over his chin and wetting his whole shirt. He learned to eat different kinds of food we like – pizza, sushi, mushroom, broccoli. He learned to play the piano, even though he could not recognise notes. He learned how to read, and revealed what he cared for through simple journal writing. He no longer resisted change, and could accept explanations for altered plans. Now, we can bring him almost anywhere with us. He is no longer a hurricane that wreaks havoc, but our treasure who delights us with radiant smiles.

What has helped us in this journey? Prayers and more prayers. Until I became Calder’s mum, I didn’t know I could be plunged into such depths of helplessness – not knowing how to calm him down, dreading the moment I had to put my foot down and enter the battle zone.

And the guilt – of not being patient enough, of losing my calm. Feeling the frustration and fatigue of caring for a boy who cannot communicate, and who does not respond to logic. If God does not intervene, there is no hope left. But I choose to believe there’s light at the end of the tunnel. I just need to walk on, one step at a time. Despite communication issues, I’ve realised I just need to transmit one truth to him – that he is loved.

Calder still cannot speak well. He’s still conspicuous in public, with his flapping and hopping. and autism continues to present new challenges. Of course, I hope he can chat with me one day. I hope he has a good friend who enjoys his company. I hope he is always surrounded by good people, and that he will find a job he delights in. I hope his sister would never think him a burden, and that he will be a blessing to others.

As a Christian, I believe we will all become perfect when we meet God face to face. Until that day, I’ll just do my best in my role as Calder’s mum – to love him despite his imperfections, and to love him despite my imperfections.

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