Looking After A Child With Autism: Singapore Mum Says Cycling Helped
This Singapore mum shares how cycling helped her in looking after a child with autism, "It gave me an avenue to see where he’s able."
When David was 2, mummy Clara Toh sent him to a playgroup like most Singapore mums. But instead of becoming more settled, he became more distracted.
"I did not think there were any signs of autism – I was only suspecting hyperactivity. I thought it might be ADHD", says Clara.
When the doctor first concluded that her son had autism, there was strong denial on her end.
As David turns 15 this July, Clara reflects on the journey thus far. She also tells theAsianparent how cycling helped regulate her son’s autism...
How it all started
Clara tells us, "When David turned 2, my husband and I sent him to this playgroup. There would be welcome songs, story time, or art and craft – all group activities. I could see other children settling down."
"I could see that they understood the routines and settled into them. Let’s say if they had puppet time, they would sit down and be very interested."
"One of the things that I noticed was, instead of becoming more settled, David became more distracted. For instance, if he was very interested in the puppet story time, he would actually walk over all the other children – to touch the little puppets."
"He walked straight through… to me there was a big question of: Where’s the spatial awareness?"
"Normally the playgroup would do one segment after another. Sometimes when there was storytelling going on, he would walk out, go around and touch the curtains. Another aspect was the language – he always had a single word and could not pronounce some words."
"I did not think there were any signs of autism – I was only suspecting hyperactivity. I thought it might be ADHD."
Diagnosed with autism
Clara goes on, "The learning support person-in-charge came to observe him. She later recommended him for Occupational Therapy. Nobody mentioned about autism at that point."
"She was suggesting there might be some sensory issues. I contacted this centre called Kaleidoscope Therapy Centre. I also contacted a JC classmate who then suggested consulting a pediatrician."
"When David was 2.5 years old, I went to Thomson Medical Centre to consult Dr Ang Poon Liat. That was the first time the term ‘Autism’ was used. Dr.Ang tried to engage him and very quickly concluded that “your son has autism”."
"I did not think it was particularly difficult to engage my son – he was quite warm and cuddly. He’s not withdrawn – not the stereotypical type. There was strong denial on my end."
"But I realised that David didn’t continue to use words that he had learned and said before. To the doctor, that was speech regression – though not noticeable to me because the language used was not simple."
"The child was sitting on my lap, he tried to give him some toys and tried to interact with him, asked him some questions. My son wasn’t keen to interact with him – but I dismissed it saying he was a not a familiar person to David."
Growing up with autism
What struggles did David face at school initially?
Clara recalls, "In the beginning there was hyperactivity and distractions, and lack of danger awareness."
"Later, I enrolled him in a nearby childcare-cum-kindergarten – it had a more natural setting. Months later though, the principal told me she was quite concerned because my son wouldn't stay with the group."
"Once he picked up a green bug and shoved it into his mouth. I understood what the principal was talking about and her concerns – the teachers couldn't always watch him."
"When David was 6 or 7, he joined a few children (3-4 years old) playing at the playground. My son was very determined to climb up the slide."
"He lacked the awareness of people feeling pain, and didn’t know how to say "Excuse me". He wanted to go up, stepping over somebody’s leg, pushing against somebody’s shoulder etc."
Effect of therapy
Did therapy help?
Clara reveals, "The whole journey of waiting for appointments at KK Hospital was long. We started with the Child Development Unit – now known as Department of Child Development."
"I believe the doctor’s formal assessment had 2 stages – it was more on observation. For autism, we don't look at markers based on medical conditions. It’s more about behavioural assessment."
"I chose Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) over Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). At that time, the supposed ‘proven’ method at KKH itself that everyone said was good was Occupational therapy and Speech therapy. It was not easy to get the slots."
"When I learned about RDI, I was drawn to the philosophy and how it was presented. I decided it was something I was attracted to – ABA focuses mainly on stimulus response, while RDI was more on social impairment."
"The whole philosophy of RDI hinges on social impairment. I wanted him to have a relationship with me."
"Our RDI consultant (a psychologist) has consistently nudged us to look out for (and also suggests) what activities may be regulating for our son... walking, deep breathing and drinking through straws etc., and especially to take part in a mass-cycling event like OCBC Cycle."
"I did not pursue speech therapy so much – I think we should develop the communicative intent more first, than force him to speak. But when he was 9 or 10, we started on speech therapy again. A lot of the oral motor exercises helped."
Looking after a child with autism
What challenges did David face when it came to socialising and communicating with friends? Has he ever been bullied / shamed?
Clara replies, "Definitely. The issue I observed is that, objects are more attractive than people."
"When David goes to a swimming pool, and he sees people playing with a ball, he swims up to them and takes over the toy and clings on to it. I would then request on his behalf… There would be mixed responses from people around."
"The nastier reactions came as he grew older and knocked into people. I don’t let him go out on his own because he will not realise that he has offended someone."
"On MRT he could be so close that he would step on others’ shoes. Even when they threw a nasty glance, he would be oblivious and repeat it. If I was nearby I would always apologise on his behalf."
"There are instances when even when I’ve explained, people are still not very forgiving. But there are times when people were nice about it."
"Once, this lady was very unhappy that David had bumped into her – I then explained that he had autism. She quickly forgave him. The issue is that he looks normal – not like someone with autism. So people often mistake his behaviour as being very rude."
Benefits of learning a new sport for autistic children
David was referred to learning a new sport (like cycling) by his RDI consultant, Genevieve Chua. Genevieve is a 47-year-old educational psychologist at Children’s Partnership, a psychological service that provides assessment, diagnosis and intervention.
She has been working closely with families of children living with developmental concerns (Autism, ADHD etc.). Also, she has witnessed the benefits of cycling on children with autism and had recommended OCBC Cycle (Singapore’s largest mass cycling event) to David and Clara.
Genevieve tells us, "When our kids learn something new, it builds new connections in their brains."
"We are born with a specific set of genes but it is our day to day experiences that shape how our brain develops through life."
"The reason I suggested that David participate in the OCBC cycle and participate in sport activities extends beyond how this new experience can support his brain development."
"David is an active boy, who thrives on movement. When he moves he can feel more regulated in his body and in his mind and this can help him attend and focus better on people, things and the environment around him."
"When we are better regulated, we can be more connected and engaged with those around us. With kids that are more active, being engaged in sports can help them work towards such regulation."
"This type of regulation can be done daily to maintain a more regulated state and it can also be carried out when needed. When he is stressed, anxious, overly excited and feels dysregulated, he can move (e.g. via exercise) so that he can calm down feelings of dysregulation and work towards being connected and engaged again."
"A more specific reason I suggested that David participate in OCBC Cycle is that he would feel a sense of pride that he could participate and be involved in an event that other people were a part of, too."
"I could see the sense of pride and achievement when kids can overcome various challenges presented (like crowd, loud sounds from the speakers, unfamiliarity of route, etc)."
"When our kids can overcome manageable challenges, they also build up their resilience and feelings of competence. They get to see and more importantly feel how able they are."
"Such feelings are something no one can give them, but what they gain from their experiences. Our role as adults and guides in their lives is to find and provide them with these authentic opportunities to build resilience and feelings of competence."
How cycling helped regulate autism
Clara also shares how learning to cycle and succeeding at it helped David in overcoming challenges at school and in life...
"It gave me an avenue to see where he’s able. He could ride 21 km, charging through the rain…. He didn’t complain about being tired."
"It was actually such a tough thing for him to practise two-wheel cycling. He agreed to practise every day, for at least 20 minutes, even when he was not enjoying or experiencing success."
"I used to cycle so close to him. Now I don’t want to do it anymore because I want him to be independent. Now I see sometimes from a distance, it’s so crowded – but he manages to squeeze his way through without anyone screaming."
"To me, it’s a great tool in resilience. It has also taught me resilience. Academically, he is quite poor. While I don’t want to keep playing that out, he needs to have some literacy level in life. I’m not giving up on that front."
"David's system is wired differently – not neuro-typical."
"My aim is not to keep taking care of him – but that he has to take care of himself and others. Even like brushing his teeth – it was difficult and challenging, and we have been using baby tooth brush. Only when he was 13 did he finally learn how to gargle, and tie his shoe lace.
Advice for other parents
Thank you so much, Clara, for sharing your story and experiences. Lastly, we ask this mum what advice she has for parents of autistic children.
And Clara has this to say, "Reflecting on the past, I’m the one who would lose him, or make him suffer falls – but what’s important has been my willingness to expose him."
"We never stopped travelling...Some parents will have different comfort levels in exposing their child. But I feel that you shouldn't withdraw your child from opportunities."
"There are moments when you will be so embarrassed, you will find a hole to hide – but you will live."