All posts by Alden Boon

Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.
Calvin Tan HIV Positive AIDS Singapore Advocacy -1848

‘Follow the Science. A Person Living with HIV Who Stays Virally Suppressed Poses No Risk of Transmission.’: Calvin Tan

The word ‘fat’ had followed me around like a shadow since I was eight years old. That year, my mother brought home Japanese karaage, or fried chicken, and from the very first moment I bit into those juicy hunks of meat I developed an addiction to them. I devoured them every chance I got. Needless to say, I ballooned in a short span of time. As a kid who towered at one hundred and seventy-five centimetres and tipped the weighing scale at eighty-eight kilograms, I became the object of ridicule in school. The constant name-calling and taunting destroyed my self-esteem. For the life of me, I just couldn’t understand why I was being picked on for enjoying an activity that evoked unbridled happiness. Once, I was having lunch by myself at the canteen when one of my bullies marched up to me and hectored: ‘Move, fatty. I want to sit here.’ Now powerless against the blood-curdling fury in me, I spat the spoonful of rice that was in my mouth at him. I can still remember the ensuing look of shock on his face. The only thing I regretted was wasting precious food on him — I felt so good about this act of defiance. That particular bully never bothered me again.

Home provided no comfort from the teasing I was suffering in school. I didn’t have a close relationship with my parents at the time: my childhood memories are tainted by frequent scolding. When I was around the age of ten, my elder brother stumbled upon my pornography collection on the family computer. Knowing how afraid I was of my parents, he used this to blackmail me into relinquishing my gaming time, so that he could have more. This tight noose around my neck he would hold for over two years, and O’ how he savoured that grip he had over me. Having to share a bedroom with the very person who was causing me a lot of distress meant that I didn’t even have a safe space to retreat to. When I could no longer endure his tormenting, I stood up to him and said that he shouldn’t be treating me like this. My brother undeterred said scornfully: ‘You can go tell dad and mom about this all you want, but the moment you do, I will tell them your secret.’

School was terrible, and home was terrible. After my Primary School Leaving Examination, I decided the best choice for me was to go to a secondary school that none of my peers would be going to — not that I was privy to their choices, but I made an educated guess. And I was right: away from my childhood bullies I now started my secondary school life with a clean slate. In the first two years of secondary school, my social circle was tight knit, all of us Dungeons and Dragons nerds who would gather after school armed with our decks of cards. Between the ages of fourteen and fifteen, I ditched my sedentary lifestyle — jogging and hitting the gym became part of my regular routine. That very year I shed sixteen kilograms, and with a burlier frame my overall self-esteem increased. Another epoch was meeting a same-aged gay boy who was unabashedly open about his sexual orientation. His confidence gave me thought: ‘If he can be comfortable about his sexual orientation, so can I.’ I just didn’t want to keep my sexual orientation a secret, and I thought that by coming out to my peers I could get some validation (something that every teenager covets), and that I would be loved even if I was different from them.

My first coming out experience went swimmingly. I shared it with one of my female classmates, and what erupted was a kind of a sisterly happiness — she squealed in glee, and said: ‘Oh my goodness, you like guys?’ Heartened by her response, I began letting more people in on my secret, sometimes in person, sometimes via social media. I eventually came out to my mother, whose curt response was not unexpected of someone of her generation (and in all fairness, of a mother who didn’t know how to deal with such a shocking revelation from her own son). ‘Continue this lifestyle and you’re going to contract acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)!’ ‘That will never happen to me!’ I retorted.

Any relief I got from coming out was short-lived. In secondary three I was appointed the class monitor, and one day I stood in front of the class to poll them on a class T-shirt matter. This big-sized person was suddenly invisible: all of them darted me blank looks, as if I had just spoken in a foreign language they didn’t grasp. No one bothered to give a response. While they didn’t outright discriminate (or bully) me, their acceptance was only perfunctory. They simply didn’t know how to interact with someone who is gay. By this time, I had drifted apart from my Dungeons and Dragons mates, being in a separate class from them. The only people who welcomed me with open arms in school, surprisingly, were the so-called delinquents. But perhaps my surprise shouldn’t have been so: they were outliers too, and they probably knew well what it was like to be misunderstood and judged.

By this time also, I was already mingling with members of the gay community. Where once I was scrutinised and teased for my size, many of them liked how I looked. For one, my thick thighs, which I grew up loathing, were suddenly desirable. I was an object of desire.

Read: How My Dog, Clifford, Uplifts and Gets Me Through My Chronic Depression and Generalised Anxiety Disorder: Rajes Balachanther

From Being Bullied to Becoming a Disability Advocate – Winston Wong’s Life as a Hard-of-hearing Person

As told to Alden Boon

Save for one incident, I remember little of my toddler years. What was supposed to be a fun day out at the beach with my parents was capped by a traumatic experience. I was building sandcastles and digging shapeless holes when suddenly a gust of wind blew my cap away. As a three-year-old, my instinct was to go after it. I gave chase after the wind-borne cap, futile in my effort to recover it. Before I knew it, the sandy shore was no more, and I plunged suddenly into the unplumbed sea. At this point, I of course hadn’t learnt the basics of swimming. Survival instincts kicked in. Thrashing about, I desperately tried to stay afloat. The salty water entering my nostrils burnt them. The pressure in my ears was painful. I was also gulping the water. Very quickly my head was submerged under water. Just as all hope had left me, a pair of hands — belonging to a stranger — gripped my body and scooped me out of the water. What ensued was a blur, though I remember the projectile of water and the ominous sound of ambulance sirens. While traumatic, the incident didn’t exactly haunt me. I bounced back remarkably, I think, and had already forgotten about it in a few days’ time.

Before the age of four, I had exceptional hearing. Whenever my dad returned home from work, I could hear the jingle of the coins in his pocket as he walked down the corridor. I would run out excitedly to greet him. All that changed about a year after my incident. According to my parents, one night, while trailing me, they called out to me repeatedly, each time loudening their voices, but I didn’t respond to them. I wasn’t giving them the cold shoulder: I just didn’t hear their calling. My sudden non-responsiveness to auditory stimuli was a red flag. After several tests, my doctor eventually diagnosed me with bilateral mild sensorineural hearing loss. No one in my family has this condition, not my extended relatives either, so it is not inherited. While there was no damage to my eardrums, there was some damage to the hair cells. That led my parents to posit that the incident at the sea was the cause of my hearing loss.

Despite the sudden onset, from kindergarten all through to Primary Three, things were fine. My hearing was still good enough that I could communicate effectively with people. Things only changed drastically when I turned ten. Now, a common misunderstanding about hearing loss is that the person is unable to discern all sounds completely. That is not accurate. My hearing loss affects my ability to hear high-frequency sounds while others may encounter problems with low-frequency sounds. My world suddenly became devoid of nature’s music, of the chirping of birds and chittering of insects: it’s a true pity. ‘S’ and ‘th’ phonics became muffled. The higher-pitched voices of female teachers were difficult to hear whereas the booming voices of the male teachers were still resonant. My erstwhile teachers had a habit of walking around in the classroom as they delivered their lessons, and I found that sounds became unintelligible whenever they had their backs facing me. I didn’t know at the time that I was already practising lipreading — it was a skill not taught to me but one that I naturally developed. Watching the movements of the lips and then hearing the utterances of the words is how I make conversations coherent. With all these setbacks, my only resort was to get fitted with hearing aids, which are used to help amplify sounds.

Before the age of four, Winston had exceptional hearing.

Now, back in the nineties, hearing aids were bulky, and very conspicuous. It’s a far cry from the slicker iterations we have today, which can maybe pass off as wireless earbuds or headsets. I exaggerate not when I say that everything changed the day I started wearing them in school. My hearing aids stopped everyone in his or her tracks. Children’s mannerisms, as we all know, are not subtle. I was at the receiving end of weird looks, sometimes even blatant staring.

The ostracisation followed swiftly. The same classmates I had had for a year shunned me out of the blue. It was as if all of them held a meeting and came to the consensus that they no longer wanted to talk to me. Then began the taunting. I had — still have — a dark complexion, and my classmates would call me ‘cockroach’ in dialect. I tried my best to ignore the pejorative nickname, but when a teacher needed help with a task, they would hector me: ‘Cockroach, go and do it.’ I had no choice but to acquiesce, and in doing so, I played right into their hands and was acknowledging that I was in fact ‘cockroach’. To them I was ‘cockroach’, and ‘deaf boy’, never ‘Winston’. At first the name-calling was contained in the classroom, but before long it became public. Sometimes they would yell the nicknames in the canteen. In those moments it felt as if the whole world had frozen over: because of my hearing aid, it was obvious to everyone present whom they were yelling at. Imagine having your greatest insecurity, the very thing that you hate most about yourself, laid bare in front of your peers and adults. Were others laughing at me also, whether out loud or in thought? All I could do in those moments was lock my gaze on some faraway corner and pretend the yelling wasn’t happening. All I could do in those moments was to hold my emotions, of shame and of humiliation, in.

From ostracisation and name-calling, things escalated as the year wore on. Being a small-sized kid, and a disabled one at that, I was easy to pick on. From verbal harassment, things turned physical. My bullies would creep up behind me, yank my hearing aids off my ears and toss them around like mere playthings. It was the ‘Monkey’ game, and I was the helpless animal, dashing here and there, flailing my arms. Every futile attempt to get them back increased my desperation. I was shorter in stature, so my bullies towered over me. All about me were finger pointing and sneers (without my hearing aids, I couldn’t hear the derisive laughter). I oscillated between sadness and anger. I was sad because I didn’t know why I was being subjected to such treatment from people my own age. I was angry because the hearing aids cost about a thousand dollars a pair, and should they damage them, my father would have to pay for new ones. It wasn’t fair that he should have to do so.

Read: ‘Let’s Stop Trying to Normalise Autism. Let’s Start Normalising Diversity.’: Dr Dawn-joy Leong

‘There’s Nothing Shameful About Disabilities… And What We Do Need Is Inclusion.’: Josh Tseng

As told to Alden Boon

As a young boy, I grew up fascinated with dinosaurs. Growing up in the midst of the dinosaur boom that swept the nineties, I dreamt of becoming a paleontologist. I was obsessed with the documentary Walking with Dinosaurs, enthralled by the animatronics and computer-generated imagery, which were back then considered cutting-edge. It didn’t dawn on me when I was a kid — but how do we know how these terrestrial reptiles of bygone eras looked like? I guess the impressions are a collective combination of educated guesses and artists’ imaginations. My fascination saw me poring over books for protracted hours: I would scrutinise the incredible illustrations and admire the majesty of their gargantuan scales. I used to have this toy where the bones and fossils were encased in brick-like blocks of sandy material. I had to use flimsy plastic tools to excavate them, which took forever. Being a lazy person by nature, I threw my hands up and instead poured water over it and watched it melt — much to the ire of my mother.

Alas, my dream was not meant to be. You see, I eventually became blind as a teenager. Hardly a quality one looks for in a palaeontologist. When I was seven, my parents noticed that my right eye had wandered outwards and was looking in a different direction from my left eye. It was what you would call a lazy eye. Before I knew it, I was carted off to undergo a slew of eye tests. Sitting in a chair, pressing my face almost up against the perimeter, a visual field testing device, was my routine. I had to fixate my gaze on a red target that stayed in the centre, and whenever I caught pinpricks of light flashing in the outer area, I was to hit the clicker. Have you ever had the discomfiting experience of having a cold-hard steely contraption come hurtling towards your eye, almost to the point of poking it? I have, repeatedly. That was for applanation tonometry, a test that measures the fluid pressure in one’s eye. Sometimes, my intraocular pressure would measure up to forty millimetres of mercury (mmHg). The average person’s is between ten and twenty-one mmHg.

After my first medical consultation, I was diagnosed with glaucoma. It confounded my ophthalmologist, because none of my relatives had the condition, so it couldn’t have been hereditary. I hadn’t suffered any traumatic injury to my head either. Yea me, I’m a medical mystery, one for the books! Unable to pinpoint the exact cause, she eventually labelled it as congenital glaucoma, which means I was born with it. Whereas my mother was distraught, at that sweet age of seven, utterly lost in my eight-bit Game Boy and staple of television shows, I was insouciant. Any vision loss that I hitherto experienced had yet had any severe impact on my day-to-day life. Several times a day, there was the chore of having to tilt my head back and receive medicated eye drops, whose purpose was to relieve the pressure on the optic nerve. Fortunately, or perhaps not so, I never had any bouts of glaucoma-related migraines or nausea, which do afflict some patients. But that meant that I never had an inkling of just how my condition was worsening. There were many times when my intraocular pressure registered a staggering reading of sixty mmHg, and had it continued rising, the inside of my eye might have ruptured! But I never felt any painful sensation, not even a tingle.

The one true inconvenience was having to wear an eyepatch over my left eye. Because my vision was diminishing in my right eye, my left one was bearing the brunt of the work. Wearing the eyepatch was to get me to use my right eye more often, and also to realign it. As a child, did I faithfully obey the doctor’s instructions? Not at all. Any chance I got I would cheat and look through the translucent fabric of the eyepatch. The material also made me itch terribly.

Me and my silicone implants

If you see me on the streets, you’d instantly know I am a blind person, because my probing cane gives me away. What is not as obvious are my silicone implants. Oh yes, I have had silicone implants since the age of twelve. I even went to Taiwan — I am of Taiwanese descent, if you have yet inferred from my surname — and got one of my silicone implants from one of Taiwan’s most famous surgeons after my family pulled some strings and managed to book a surprise consultation for me. My Singaporean doctor was understandably none too pleased with it when she found out.

The silicone implants aren’t what you think. I’ve had glaucoma drainage implant surgery, and my implants are further up north, in my right eye. With this surgery, a hairlike tube shunt is stitched to the wall of the eye, in turn allowing fluid to drain through it and collect at the end of a plate. Then, the fluid is drained through the eye’s natural drainage system. This surgery is as risky as it sounds: the tubes can shift out of place. It does not seek to help the patient regain vision loss, because glaucoma is an irreversible condition, but to relieve the pressure. Going for surgery was never fun: that assault of the odorous anesthetic gas, the stitches got unbearably itchy, and the ensuing recovery took weeks.

Ross Nasir Big Brown Girl Esplanade Singapore Fat Acceptance Representation Body Positivity --2

Eight Questions with Star of Big Brown Girl Ross Nasir: Being a Plus-sized Woman and Her Self-love Journey

Ross Nasir is the star in the one-woman show ‘Big Brown Girl’. The musical comedy follows Ruby as she dates several men from Singapore, Malaysia, Washington D.C. and Paris. The story draws on Ross’s personal experiences as well as shared experiences of other plus-sized women. We speak to Ross about growing up as a plus-sized kid in Singapore as well as self-worth.

Ross, what was growing up as a plus-sized kid like?

When I was a kid, the word ‘fat’ was such a humiliating term. It had a negative connotation. Kids, being kids, would of course tease me, but I wasn’t pressed by that. I guess that has something to do with my assertiveness as a person. I was, however, affected whenever I was asked to go to the back row during a photoshoot because the teachers didn’t want me to block my smaller-sized classmates. And as a performer from primary school all through college, I would get very upset whenever I couldn’t fit into a costume. As you know, dancers should be wearing the same set of costumes for a performance. But because of my size, it was difficult to find matching costumes. While my friends were accommodating and were willing to settle for a simple black ensemble with ties, I just felt very bad. So many times I would run to my parents in tears, because I was afraid I wouldn’t be allowed to perform. I didn’t want to be separated from my friends. But thankfully, things always worked out in the end.

For us plus-sized people, even going for a fitting can be very daunting.

Exactly. Something as simple as trying on costumes can make plus-sized children can take pause, because it’s a point of embarrassment for them. It simply doesn’t feel good to have to squeeze yourself into something that doesn’t fit you. As a drama teacher, I’m very aware of this. That’s why when I’m preparing costumes, I always make sure that everyone feels he or she is included. I don’t want anyone to feel that he or she is different. If I can take away one obstacle for them, why not?

Were you a part of the very traumatising Trim and Fit (TAF) Club?

Oh, of course! I didn’t understand why I had to go and run during recess time. Why couldn’t I enjoy my mee soto? It’s counterproductive as it only made me hungrier — after school I’d devour even more junk food! I get that it comes from a good place of wanting to get us to a healthy weight, but as a kid it was such a humiliating experience. Imagine having to run (poorly) in front of the whole school, and as an overweight girl, in front of older boys! I always tried to get out of it: once, when I was in primary five, I hid in a dark corner behind the dentist’s office and ate my burger. I always harboured that fear of the teacher calling my name during assembly because I was an absentee. But I honestly wouldn’t say TAF Club as traumatising.

Ross Nasir as Ruby in 'Big Brown Girl'.

Was there any pressure from your family to lose weight?

My father has a very lean physique while my mother is a curvy but not a big woman. We think I inherited my grandmother’s genes: she’s plus-sized as well. Growing up, my mother was very protective of me, and she never once made me go on a diet. It was always more of diluting my soda or cutting down my access to snacks.

The pressure came when I was much older. When I was seventeen, I tried the Atkins diet. I initially thought it wasn’t that bad as I could eat anything but carbs. And then I realised I couldn’t live without carbs. Then came the wanting to have a life partner, to want to know what love feels like. I didn’t have a boyfriend when I was in secondary school, so I’d spent a lot of time thinking: ‘What is wrong with me?’ ‘What am I doing wrong?’ I’ve wondered if everything that the world has taught us about inner beauty is untrue. Do we really get picked because of our looks? They say ‘love yourself first’, but I feel that it’s so difficult for me to love myself because I don’t know how anyone can love me.

You’re a multihyphenate: actress, writer, singer. To be able to perform on stage to a live audience tells me you’re confident and obviously talented. Why do you say you struggle with self-love?

My stage work has more to do with my career and interests. I can be the funniest person in the world (my friends repeatedly tell me I’m not) but it doesn’t mean I don’t have debilitating thoughts about myself. The audience may clap for me, but I don’t feel loved. I feel appreciated that the audience finds the script and jokes enjoyable. But the applause doesn’t help me to become confident, not in areas such as my love life or relationships. Self-love is a personal journey, and it is a lifelong struggle for me. For me, I yearn to see myself through the eyes of someone who loves me, so that I can finally see what I’m worth. People have told me that I really shouldn’t be depending on others to determine my self-worth. But it’s easy for them to say that. For them, when someone pays them a compliment such as ‘you’re beautiful’, they don’t immediately think: ‘He’s lying. There’s nothing, absolutely nothing, here that he sees that is beautiful.’

Have you come to accept your body or is that still a struggle?

I’ve come to accept that even if I were to eat less, I would always be plus-sized. I’ve also come to take ownership of the word ‘fat’ and think of it as a positive term. While I’m fat, I’m a healthy girl and I don’t have any illnesses. But especially after the past two years of COVID-19, I’ve reflected on things like longevity. I want to make sure that I can continue doing what I love for a long time. My goal now is to be big and active. Production rehearsals have been a good catalyst towards this goal: we’ve been doing Zumba and other activities to build stamina. One thing though that I have had to learn is that being fat is not my identity. My personality isn’t made up of my weight. Being fat is a part of me, and I have to live with it.

From pain comes beautiful art. Tell us about your show Big Brown Girl.

Melissa Sim, my co-writer for the show, and I used to talk about our dating experiences. I shared mine, not just as a big girl but also as a girl of a minority race. And then she shared her friends’ experiences, and we both saw that there was a common thread here. The story of Ruby, my character, is one that needs to be told. The story follows her experiences as a plus-sized woman, as she travels the world and finds her self-worth.

The production is by How Drama. We have another production entitled ‘Fat Kids Are Harder to Kidnap’, where we would stage thirty-one plays in an hour. There’s an interactive portion where the audience would shout the number of the play and we would perform it. We wanted to bring this interactivity to Big Brown Girl: it gives the audience a sense of agency as they can vote for the men that Ruby would go on dates with.

Many people have asked: ‘Oh, so does Ruby’s story represent all fat girls’ stories?’ It doesn’t; it’s not a one-size-fits-all story. This has to do with the fact there is so little plus-size representation in Singapore. I’m therefore so grateful to Esplanade for giving us the opportunity to stage our play. It’s quite bold of them to do so. I’m hoping that this will open up more platforms for other plus-sized girls and boys to share their stories, which are multifaceted and beautiful.

Indeed, there is a scarcity of plus-size representation in Singapore’s media scene. And if there is, it’s caricatures. One last question: aren’t you afraid of putting so much of yourself out there?

Oh yes, I do feel that fear. While conceptualising the show, there were many moments when we thought: ‘Is this too much?’ But what I’ve learnt is that I have to present honesty to the audience, so that people will learn and know that these are the very struggles that plus-sized people encounter. This is where I think Melissa is brilliant, as she was able to take the stories I offered up and adapt them to suit Ruby the character. The story became more character centric and less autobiographical. It’s a story that belongs to everyone, even men.

There were many plus-sized women who came to watch the show during our first leg in December 2021. After the show, they would come to me, crying and thanking me. I was so humbled by it. Hearing their compliments has helped me work through my own set of insecurities. Thank goodness I wasn’t the only one who went through incidents like being asked to sit on a bar stool — those things are invented for fat-shaming! Why would you put me at the end of a chopstick? I’m now very excited for the upcoming shows and to hear feedback from more people.

Ross Nasir’s Big Brown Girl returns from 10 to 12 June 2022. Get your tickets now at Keep your eyes peeled for an in-depth story with Ross as she shares more on body positivity and self-worth.

Photo credit: Esplanade

Ganesh Kumar Woodlands Botancial Garden Flowers Singapore Green Flowers

He Built Woodlands Botanical Garden From Scratch Alongside His Father. Now, Ganesh Kumar Wants It to Be a Bastion of Mental Wellness.

The smooth swards of grass burst with the hues of iridescent flowers. It is a dramatic juxtaposition: the idyllic garden, built on a nine-storey-high hill, is ringed in by tall blocks of old apartment flats. Trellises adorned with trailing leaves beckon you to enter. At the foot of the hill also are arrayed hibiscuses, portulacas and seven varieties of butterfly peas. Clamber up the hill and the sight of golden tecomas, melastomas and mussaendas swaying in tandem with the breeze greets you. It is not just the eyes that are treated to a spellbinding magnificence. Sundry frangipanis embalm the air with their sweet aromas. Kingfishers, bulbuls and doves compose melodic songs well into noontide. Butterflies, dragonflies and bees flit hither and thither at the slightest stir of approach. This is an oasis. And it was built painstakingly and lovingly by the hands of three persons: Ganesh Kumar, his father and their ex-helper. Today, the garden and its activities are managed by twenty volunteers across three groups: gardening infrastructure, and events.

Ganesh, tell us about your passion for gardening.

My grandparents and parents were the ones responsible for instilling in me a love of gardening. It was a weekend activity for us. What I derive from gardening is more than happiness; it’s the feeling of amazement. I find that no humans can create what nature can create so flawlessly. Just take a flower and examine its combination of colours: the gradience from red to orange, or the fading of a red centre to purple edge. Gardening cultivates patience: you plant a seed today and you have to wait three months for the first flower. The biggest mistake we can make as gardeners is to think we’re in charge. Each plant does what it does — we can mould children into good citizens, or teach our pets how to behave, but we cannot dictate that with plants. Through gardening, we learn that there is something bigger than us. We cannot control everything in our lives. We just have to know that good things will come our way if we wait patiently.

How did Woodlands Botanical Garden take root?

According to the older folks who have lived here for decades, this site used to be an old army camp. There are even claims that there are secret bunkers here — I cannot ascertain the veracity, as I’ve yet to come across them, but I sure hope to find them one day. The north face of the hill was at first filled with grass. Unkempt weeds peeked out of boulders. On the gentler slope of the hill, I planted a few golden tecomas amidst the lalang that were already growing. That was in March 2020. They were barely knee height back then and were easily missed. Slowly, we planted more cuttings that I bought from nurseries. As I already lead the garden at my university hall, I had connections and could bring in unique flowers to enliven the space. When we first began, there was no water source, so my father, ex-helper and I had to use trolleys to lug jerry cans of water up the slope every day. Just watering alone took us about an hour and a half; on hot days we would water the plants up to three times.

Given that Singapore is a strict country, how did you bypass the inimical laws and pull this off?

One day, I got a message that the NParks team would like to meet me and visit the garden. The officer informed me that I was in fact not allowed to do any gardening work here, as the area was a public space that belonged to the government. I initially didn’t know that it was so stringent: there were already other plants scattered throughout on the other side of the hill. I urged him to take a look at the garden, which by this time spanned about ten metres long and had fifteen types of plants. Where once it was just a bleak slope, now there was so much life. When the flowers opened in the mornings, a multitude of butterflies and bees came to feed on their nectar. The presence of dragonflies was also an indicator of how clean and fresh the water was. Birds were weaving their nests and laying their eggs here: they trusted our space.

I shared with the officer how I coordinated the arrangement of the flowers by colour, and how I chose plants that are suitable for Singapore’s hot weather. I also shared with him my vision: every country has her own unique plants and flowers and my goal is for this garden to be a showcase of Singapore’s unique flora.  Malaysia has the beautiful Cameron Highlands, why can’t Singapore have something similar? After our chat, NParks got me to come up with an official proposal, which was subsequently approved. I think I had proven that I was not just some hobbyist but someone who knew what he was doing. I’m indebted to NParks for being so magnanimous, entrusting me with this space and supporting me. And with the official green light, my father, ex-helper and I hunkered down and brought to life our vision. Row by row, plot by plot, we expanded our garden.

The residents also wrote to our minister Mr Zaqy Mohamad to help us obtain a water source. Very soon, it became a community effort. Support came from members of the silver generation — these eighty-year-old retirees helped us to set up an irrigation system that goes from the base to the summit of the hill as well as build structures and trellises. After we were recognised by Resident’s Network as a community garden, we were able to set up a volunteer group. Today, we have gardeners who help with watering, pruning, clearing the weeds and maintaining the overall cleanliness of the space.

Japan is famed for her cherry blossoms and New Zealand for her fields of lupins. This garden, with its panoply of vibrant flowers, feels like a microcosm of these world-famous sites.

It makes me very happy to hear that. Minister Lawrence Wong paid us a visit and in a post he compared the garden to Singapore Botanical Gardens. It was a very proud moment for us: that our humble space can be compared to a UNESCO site.

Of this masterpiece, Ganesh says that God is the true painter, whereas he is only the paintbrush. He prays to Hindu God Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles.
When residents could no longer care for their budgerigars and wanted to release them into the wild, Ganesh implored them not to, as the birds would likely not survive. Instead, he set up an aviary to house the birds. Free-roaming bulbuls would hold converse with them, Ganesh says.

Human Rights Defender Sherry Sherqueshaa on Crimes Against Sex Workers, Love, and Her Muslim Faith

Sherry Sherqueshaa is running. Her screams rouse many onlookers, but no one helps her. Her hand hovers over her exposed breasts, a feeble attempt at protecting the last remnant of her modesty. She cares not about any broken shards of glass lying in wait or her pride. While on a job, her awareness is usually keen, but this time she had let her guard down. The client had been surly and curt to her right from the get-go. After the act, wanting to avert eye contact and avoid small talk, she busied herself with her phone. And that was when he took off with her bag, in which contained her identification card and a night of earnings. Apoplectic, she gives chase. Now gaining on him, she makes a final leap, a judgement of terrible error, as she instead trips and scrapes herself against the floor. The robber, by a stroke of incredible luck, swings open the door of a passing taxi and hops onboard. As she makes her slow march back to the hotel room, Sherry harangues the bystanders for their apathy.

More often than not, sex workers who find themselves in similar plights do not report the crimes for fear of repercussion: they can be charged for solicitation. But Sherry, at this juncture in her career, knew the law and her rights. She would not be exploited. ‘I didn’t care about what would happen to me. I just knew I shouldn’t let him get away scot-free.’ If the robbery opened a wound, then the ensuing encounter with the police officers rubbed salt on it. Their nonchalance signalled to Sherry that they were brushing her case off as just another disturbance in the red-light district; another case of drunk men going overboard with sex workers. ‘They didn’t even bother taking down my statement. I had the full name of the client and his bank account number. CCTV footage would back me up on my claims. I had a good case. But the investigating officer didn’t pursue the matter. For days I awaited his call. I made repeated visits to the station. But nothing came out of it. The incident slipped my mind, until a year later when I had to replace the loss of my identification card. I had to pay a fee to renew it. But why should I have to pay for it? I didn’t lose my card due to carelessness: I was robbed. I wasn’t drunk (and so deserved it); he had every intention of robbing me.’ As disappointing as it was, this encounter didn’t shake her faith in the justice system: Sherry attributed it to the nonchalance of one lone police officer. ‘I get it, though. I understand why he didn’t do anything about it.’

This would be her second incident of abuse in an eleven-year journey of sex work. The first incident happened when she was still a greenhorn roaming the parks. Her insistence on using protection for fellatio, as well as rejection of her client’s advances to kiss her, riled the latter. ‘He kept on pushing his luck. It’s an unwritten rule that in the park we had to be quick and discreet, but he kept changing positions. That annoyed me.’ When his requests were not acceded to, the client started to get violent. He pushed her. Despite the stark size difference, Sherry retaliated. That was when he punched her in the eye. Before Sherry could compose herself and regain her bearings, he fled the scene. Sherry was not paid for her service. The scuffle also cost her a broken watch.

‘I spent the next few hours venting to my friend. At this point, I’d been a sex worker for months, and while I’ve heard stories like this, I didn’t think it would happen to me.’ As for her black eye, Sherry made no attempt to cover it up. ‘I used it as a way to get attention, to gain sympathy with my clients. I was like a damsel in distress, appealing to my clients’ masculine urge to protect me,’ she quips.

Not a bed of roses

Sex work was not Sherry’s first choice of work. She dropped out of school when she was fifteen, after daily taunts from her classmates took a toll. For four years, she worked at a fast-food restaurant before enlisting in the army. After completing her national service, she — then still a pre-transition transgender woman — worked at a semi-fine dining restaurant as the hostess, sitting guests and recommending chef’s specialities. ‘I enjoyed the interaction with people, I enjoyed very much being the front person who connected with patrons.’ However, when the desire to express herself as a woman far eclipsed her need to hide her true self, she began dolling herself up. Her then colleagues began alienating her and became more distant. And without warning came her termination: her superiors cited a poor work performance and tardiness as reasons.

Shunned and stigmatised by society, for many transgender women in the early aughts, sex work was one of the few livelihoods they could turn to. It was a personal friend of Sherry who roped her into the industry. At first her family disparaged her outfit choices ad nauseum, but eventually that turned into indifference. ‘My family didn’t probe about my work, but it doesn’t take a genius to know that I was moonlighting: I’d doll myself up, head out of the house late in the afternoon and only come home past midnight. I didn’t have a day job, yet I could pay for what I wanted. I was lucky in that I didn’t get abused by my own family members, as is the lived experience of many transgender women.’

Sex work, like all other jobs, is work. ‘“Tough” was not knowing what’s going to happen. Every night, while my mind was set on making a few hundred dollars, I wasn’t sure of the type of men I’d meet.’ Thrust suddenly into an uncertain world, Sherry had to learn the ropes, first by identifying potential clients. A car circling the vicinity of the park several times. Sheepish eye contact. In hindsight, there were many close shaves with the police. While sex work is not illegal in Singapore, soliciting is, and therein is where the line is blurred. ‘I didn’t feel scared until my sex worker sisters told me to be wary of undercover and uniformed cops. Just imagine: a woman with a bagful of contraceptives — it’s not hard to suspect vice-related activity. They taught me to quickly walk away and avoid being questioned.’

While her would-be clients were discreet, hecklers, many of whom were her age, were rambunctious. ‘Faggot’ some would berate her. Others would ask her for the price or harass her with faux kissing noises. Eyes followed her every move, even if she didn’t ask for the attention. Kids would stare, out of curiosity, when she was in a coffee shop, her short skirt and skimpy dress incongruous. ‘Whenever I was in a coffee shop, I’d tone myself down and not be flamboyant or loud. Some men would try their luck and ask me for my price. That’s not very nice: if indeed you really wanted to engage my services, you’d know where to find me. I just needed somewhere to eat, to have my meal. I was not there to solicit business. I understand that the way we dress can cause discomfort, but sex workers have every right to have a meal in peace. And then we’ll leave without causing any trouble.’

The first time she completed a transaction, Sherry says feelings of disgust gnawed at her. ‘I felt dirty. Had I a choice, I would want to be intimate with someone I had a connection with. But I was doing this for money.’

‘Let’s Stop Trying to Normalise Autism. Let’s Start Normalising Diversity.’: Dr Dawn-joy Leong

As told to Alden Boon

When I was seven, I brought an unabridged copy of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist to school. At that age, I of course didn’t understand the rich nuances of the text. But I pored over the words and was sucked in by the story. My teacher, seeing this thick book in my petite hands, thought I was being too clever by half. Instead of encouraging and nurturing my reading passion, she punished me.

When I was nine, I was taught English by a trainee teacher whose voice I still remember. She had a habit of mispronouncing words. ‘Fa-mi-lia’. ‘Sa-mi-lia’. I corrected her. I was not challenging her authority; I was merely stating facts. My peers thought I was a real hoot. She didn’t think I was so funny.

As I sat in the classroom, sagging under the blended noise of endless chatter, chalk scraping across the board and chairs scratching the concrete floor, there rose the whirring sound of the rickety fan. One day, I noticed that its rhythm was off. Immediately I alerted my teacher to it, but again I was dismissed as being disruptive. My warning proved prescient: four weeks later, it fell from the ceiling and almost hit my classmate.

Growing up in a world that is just not designed for us, bullying is almost a rite of passage for autistics. I wasn’t bullied by my peers. I was bullied by teachers. I couldn’t sit still; I couldn’t take instructions. I was singled out as the challenging student. When I was interested in a certain topic, I effusively wanted to engage in lengthy discussions with the teacher. Now, this was the sixties, seventies, and such brazen eagerness, especially in an Asian classroom, was not tolerated. During that bygone era, corporal punishment was allowed: teachers would chew us up and whack us. Rulers would break asunder right before our very eyes. I was made to stand outside the classroom.

For the longest time, I thought I was stupid because I couldn’t express an idea the ‘proper’ way. Teachers didn’t believe I authored my compositions. Not that they were advanced or better; they were just different. My art teacher once took my artwork, tore it up right in front of me and told me that I’d never be an artist because of my inability to colour within the lines. What has colouring within the lines got to do with creativity? But as an impressionable teenager, I believed her. Even till today, I’ve largely eschewed painting, taking instead to installation art. Decades later, my ex-classmates would reveal that they too were traumatised by the very callousness of this teacher.

Now, my inability to colour within the lines has nothing to do with my autism. What is associated with autism is my obsession with repetitions. When I was a child, I revelled in spinning toys. I’d line up my toys and spin them for hours, entranced by the movements. Back then, this was deemed inappropriate, an impairment. And very little was known about autism in the sixties (I would only get an official diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome at the age of forty-two). Normal kids wouldn’t play with toys like that: they’d personify their toys and host lovely tea parties. Thankfully, my parents paid no heed to that. My father, a dental surgeon, didn’t force me to stop this peculiarity; instead, he used my hobby as an opportunity to introduce the laws of physics to me.

My mother, an English teacher, seeing that I was intrigued by the process of making treacle, gave me the space in the kitchen to experiment. She prepared sugar and boiling water, and got me to observe how the former reacted and changed at different temperatures. When I went to school, my teachers laughed at me for insisting that cooking was science. ‘Sit down, Dawn, and I will teach you why cooking is an art.’ But I could never sit still.

So, if you ask me about my childhood ambitions, I’d present them in a dichotomous timeline of before I began schooling, and after. Before, I wanted to be a scientist and an artist. Because of my innate love for animals, one of my silly dreams was to be a jungle doctor. I read very keenly a book on human biology, which imparted the knowledge of building structures such as toilets and emergency rooms in primitive settings such as an African village. I drew schematics. I even knew how deep into the earth I had to dig to build a makeshift toilet.

But my dream of becoming a scientist and artist was not meant to be. Singapore’s educational system does not consider your strengths: it takes the average of your scores and chucks you into different categories. I showed potential for biology, was wonderful at arts, and was hopeless at mathematics. When streaming came, I was put in the arts class. Arts Students in the arts stream were unfairly thought of as stupid while science students were smart. Such an indiscriminate measurement disadvantages especially autistics, because we are so different, interested in esoteric or peculiar topics society ranks unimportant.

I had a lot of disdain for Literature: an irony because I’m told I write well; and I love reading. I just was not interested in who loves whom, or why a certain character is feeling a certain way. I read for the beauty of the language, not to dissect the social themes and profundity that non-autistics are in perpetual search of. History lessons — especially topics such as The Boxer Rebellion — were traumatic. Just reading about the events stirred such strong emotions that I was rendered incapacitated: I couldn’t even show up to take the final examination. My autistic brain allows me to identify patterns. There is a resolution to humanity’s problems, yet we just won’t learn. We’ve set foot on Mars, yet we haven’t learnt how to stop fighting. Generation after generation politicians are still waging wars, and the rest of us have to live with the consequences of their mistakes.

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Superbloom Founder Sylvia Ramlal on Making Dreamy Jelly Cakes, Handling Burnout and Finding Satisfaction

An unexpected job loss turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Sylvia Ramlal. During her downtime, she discovered an interest in making jelly cakes, and that interest would eventually become a viable business idea. Despite having no experience in the food and beverage industry, she went on to set up Superbloom, where she doles out gorgeous jelly cakes. In the cakes are encased hyper-realistic and three-dimensional flowers — such as peonies, sunflowers, roses, dahlias and daisies — and koi fish. Sylvia shares more about inspiration, fatigue and satisfaction in this story.

Sylvia, before Superbloom, what did you work as?

For about four cumulative years, I took on an account management role in a large company and later at a small media production agency. My primary job scope included the planning and running of media advertisements. My team and I worked with the clients to plan strategies and activations throughout all the phases of the campaigns.

Did you enjoy your job?

I loved it. There was a sense of accomplishment after every campaign — I was part of the crew that helped brands bring their activations to life. We worked hard for months just to make a one-night event happen, and when the public’s feedback is positive, it’s a tremendous feeling. Our efforts also helped our clients to increase their sales. I challenged myself to consistently hit my target and beyond. I also enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of the job.

Stress is of course part and parcel of any job, and it does take a mental toll. Even when we were on holidays, we brought along our laptops and worked, because we felt a responsibility to ensure that the campaigns would run smoothly. Because of the hectic nature of the job, there were times when I forgot to eat. I didn’t sleep well: work was constantly on my mind. Almost every weeknight, before sleep, I could be nicely tucked in my bed and I would suddenly jerk because I thought I had forgotten to complete a task. I’d then run and flip open my file to check. Or I’d get paranoid that an important email was stuck in the outbox. As a result of the stress, sleep deficiency and poor lifestyle choices, my health deteriorated. I developed an autoimmune disorder that still affects me today.

How debilitating is this disorder?

Because my immunity system is down, if I’m near someone who’s sick, I’ll catch the illness very quickly. And my cells don’t regenerate as quickly, so I take a longer time to recover and I need to be on medications. Now, I take extremely good care of myself. In the past, I would get frequent bouts of fever. There were random attacks of kidney and liver inflammations. My eczema flare-ups and rashes didn’t heal properly. One Monday during a highly stressful sales meeting, I had a nosebleed. Everyone was shocked. Acting on the advice of my doctor, I quit my job at the large firm as my body just couldn’t keep up with the stressful work environment anymore.

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What happened after that?

For a year, I worked at the smaller media production agency, and had a smaller workload. Circa January 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was laid off as the firm said it couldn’t afford to have me onboard. Industry wide, there was a hiring freeze. The few companies that were hiring wanted me to take on the title of an account manager. I would have been fine with the demotion, but I had to take a huge pay cut. It’s not so much a pride thing. You see, the culture in Singapore is such that hiring managers only look at your last paid salary when deciding your pay package — they don’t always consider your skills or experience or what you can bring to the table. So, had I agreed to this pay cut just to tide over, it would be difficult for me to eventually climb back to my previous income. I couldn’t find a job; I wallowed in self-pity for about a month or so. Everything changed in a heartbeat, everything except my bills. And I was quite the spendthrift back then, so I didn’t have any savings to fall back on (laughs).

At which point did Superbloom begin to take shape?

I wanted to surprise my grandmother, who is an avid baker, with a cake for her birthday. I chanced upon a jelly cake online and I was wowed by its aesthetics. I started with cheap and low-quality syringes and needles. Being naturally good with handicrafts, I picked up the skill of manoeuvring rather quickly. The first one turned out pretty well, except for the overpowering coconutty flavour. All told, before launching my business, I made at least fifty cakes in one month. I’m a Virgoan, hence I’m a perfectionist, and I’m also a designer by training. Jelly cakes are all about the detail, so I tend to nit-pick my creations a lot. My family, my friends and their friends stepped up as taste testers — they have eaten so many that now they can no longer eat one. Their compliments and constant asking about my official launch date gave me the assurance that the jelly cakes were up to standard. And since I had no job offer, I thought: ‘Why not just take this leap of faith and see what happens?’ I’ve not looked back ever since.

Read: SGBrisketKitchen Founder Jayce Ho on the Joys and Pains of Smoking Meats and Entrepreneurship

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From ITE Graduate to Self-made Entrepreneur – Littlebotany Founder Fendi Sani on His Love for Plants and Overcoming Insecurities

Stepping into the open-air Littlebotany at Sungei Tengah is like being ensconced in perpetual spring. Time seems to slow in this lush paradise teeming with philodendrons, hoyas, sanseverias, anthuriums and syngoniums. The blades of leaves glow in the stream of soft sunlight, fluttering at the coming of wind. Their caretaker is Fendi Sani, whose admiration for plants is perennial. He exudes a friendly and kind demeanor, but belying it is a hardiness akin to that of a cactus. This is his story.

Fendi, what were you like as a kid?

My affinity with plants developed at a young age. Whenever I was riding a bus or in a van, I would look at the trees and observe how the leaves moved. As a kid, I was also drawn to the outdoors, thanks to my parents’ influence. Doodling was another hobby of mine: I would draw things that I imagined such as creatures and mermaids. I’ve always had a strong connection with animals too. In fact, all my current home cats are rescued.

Did you enjoy studying?

Science at the primary school level was interesting to me — the early foundational topics were on photosynthesis, animals, trees and plants. I’d always struggled with mathematics. At the secondary school level, physics and chemistry were very much based on mathematics, so I lost interest. I also have colour vision deficiency, so I couldn’t differentiate between the chemicals and the colour-coded elements in the periodic table. Literature was my main humanities subject. I really enjoyed it: getting to decipher the themes of a book and to discuss about the people in the story, from their motivations to their characters. There was an openness to it: there was no right or wrong as long as I could make sense of what I wrote. I loved that creative freedom.

I was in the last class of the express stream, the ‘delinquent’ class that I think the teachers had given up on, because we were students who didn’t excel in examinations or had big personalities or behavioural issues. I’m not sure if it was an understanding issue or if I lacked in the foundation, but I eventually failed O-Level mathematics. Only a few diploma courses, such as early childhood, were available to me. The syllabuses didn’t interest me. I decided to be practical and to take the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) route. I thought I could get a Higher National ITE Certificate (Nitec) in business studies and then enrol in a polytechnic thereafter.

What was your frame of mind back then?

I felt ashamed that I was a student from the express stream who wound up at ITE. My elder sister went to polytechnic, so that was the linear route to follow. There was no pressure from my parents — they knew of my struggles with mathematics. But yea, I did harbour that internal shame for a while. Back in the mid-2000s, the notion was that only students who didn’t study hard would end up in ITE. At the beginning of the school term, even a few of my ITE classmates would jest — ‘What are you doing here? You did O Levels and you’re here.’ I was an express-stream student who ended up in ITE, so to them, my failure seemed greater than their own — how could someone screw up so much? But that feeling of shame only persisted for the first two months or so. After that initial period of adjustment, I forgot about the shame, moved on and my inspiration to study hard was rekindled.

What would you say to youths who find themselves at the same crossroads as you — having to choose between the ITE route and taking up a diploma in a field that doesn’t interest them, simply because they don’t want to be labelled a failure?   

There’s a lot hanging on that three-year polytechnic route: there’s money involved. Pursuing something you don’t have an interest in is exhausting. If you decide to drop out halfway through the course, you’d have nothing to show for. If the ITE path is the best or only option for you, take it. Don’t feel as if you’ll be left out or left behind. The two years of foundational learning at ITE will expose you to specific skills. During this time, pick up new hobbies. See what sticks. You will learn a lot about yourself.

Don’t think of the ITE path as a longer route. Time wise, yes, it is an extra two years, but should you progress to polytechnic later, you go in with one foot already in the door. You’re more prepared; you have an awareness of what’s going on. So, don’t feel pressured to get a diploma if you are not ready — if not you are just pursuing something aimlessly. By the time you turn seventeen, eighteen, you’ll have a fresh perspective. You may think, ‘I enjoy the hotel environment. Maybe I want to get a hotel management diploma.’ And that’s when you will become driven and that’s when you will excel, because when you’re passionate about something, you naturally will push yourself harder than everyone else.

The only downside for ITE graduates is the pay difference between theirs and diploma or degree holders’. But I think that’s fair — diploma or degree holders have spent more time studying. But you will be able to catch up. Should you want to get on the management track, you will then need to further your studies. Here’s the thing: if you become a valued person at your company, your bosses may want to invest in you and sponsor your studies.

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I’ve had academically inclined friends who were junior-college graduates who dropped out of their courses in university and did a one-eighty. So many people I know, now in their thirties and forties, loathe their jobs — and they pursued their supposed passions. I think our starting points in life don’t really matter.

Not many people know what they want to do until much later in life. The ambitions you have as a teenager will likely change as you grow older. That said, there are people who choose to stay in their high-income jobs even though they hate them, because they want to have a certain lifestyle. That is fine too. You just have to be happy with the priorities and choices you make.

What would you say to youths who don’t really know what they want to do?

Just start working. Try everything. I held down my first part-time job when I was seventeen while studying. My dad, who at the point was the sole breadwinner,  had lost his job. My first job entailed the selling of winter clothes. I paid for my own livelihood — all my meals, school fees and school trips. While my having to work was out of necessity, gaining a sense of independence made me feel good. The experience of working while studying was very rewarding. When you’re independent, you get to take charge of your life and decide what you want to spend on.

Later, I had a stint in the events industry. While awaiting my enlistment into national service, I got a job in an air and sea freight company, which was when I acquired knowledge on how international cargo shipping works. I didn’t know at the time that the knowledge would go on to help me set up Littlebotany.

Upon the completion of my national service, I knew I didn’t want to further my business studies, as I felt that I’d already learnt everything I needed to know about the business world in ITE. So, I went and landed myself an accounting job. Because that was my then definition of success: sitting at an office table and climbing the corporate ladder. But the job was so boring — I don’t like mathematics, so why was I in a job that dealt with numbers? I was falling asleep at work. My motivation to work was zero.

After about seven months or so, I resigned and became a flight attendant with Jetstar International. That job I loved: getting to travel, being exposed to different cultures, and making lasting connections with friends all over the world. Within four years, I was appointed the flight purser, or cabin manager. It’s a feat I’m proud of, as I was one of the youngest persons to become one — usually the role requires someone with years of flying experience. My promotion came due to the amount of hard work I put in. That’s why I believe in the importance of hard work. Work hard wherever you are, and someone will take a chance on you, regardless of your qualifications, or the lack thereof. Be a sponge — absorb everything you can. As long as you are willing to work hard and focus, you do not have to worry about your future.

Read: SGBrisketKitchen Founder Jayce Ho on the Joys and Pains of Smoking Meats and Entrepreneurship

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Helping Autistic Children Gain Independence Through Behaviour Therapy: Founder of Therapy Kidz Eileen Su

(Editor’s note: Following the interview piece with autistic researcher and artist Dr Dawn-joy Leong, edits have been made to this story. The use of person-first language [children with autism] has been switched to identity-first language [autistic children]. Outdated labels such as ‘high, low functioning’ and ‘Levels One, Two, Three’ have also been removed.)

A brief stint as a tutor where she had to teach a student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder would prove to be a turning point in Eileen Su’s life. Her efforts to adapt her teaching materials to suit her student’s needs and make learning easier for him piqued her interest in behaviour therapy. After several jobs where she worked as a personal assistant, secretary and as a human resources personnel, she eventually landed her first job as a behaviour therapist at an international school. Today, as Founder of Therapy Kidz, she works with autistic children, helping them to become independent through the application of coping strategies and lifelong skills.

Eileen, could you explain what the aims of behaviour therapy are?

Behaviour therapy is a holistic programme that imparts skills to help children aged up to thirteen years old increase their attention span as well as improve two-way communication and their requesting skills.

When a child with a short attention span is introduced to a toy, he will likely touch it and then move on to the next. He may sit for two seconds and stand up again. Because his attention wavers, he is unable to undertake a simple activity, such as sorting shapes, from start to finish. During behaviour therapy sessions, we help him develop the skills to increase his attention span. This in turn allows for learning to take place.

We also encourage two-way communication. For example, we will leave a box filled with items somewhere. This creates opportunities for the child to seek help, such as asking us to open it for him. For children who are more advanced in terms of speech development, we create activities that increase the chance of conversations. For example, we will invite them to talk about the zoo. We create scenarios where they can answer the ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘who’, ‘where’, ‘when’ and ‘how’ questions. Over time, they will develop their speech and understand conversations. They will come to differentiate between a question and a statement, without the need for it to be repeated.

You work mostly with autistic children. What are the signs?

An autistic child may have speech delay, which is a difficulty verbalising his needs and wants. A sign of speech delay is when a child is unable to articulate words as well as imitate or make sounds. And when a child has speech delay, all the other developments will likely be delayed. This is because they will have problems functioning in a social setting and they are unable to work in a group or request for things they need. For example, when they throw something and they feel pain in their arms, they cannot communicate that pain. Or take waking up on the wrong side of the bed. For us, when we haven’t had a good night’s sleep, we wake up feeling irritated and grumpy. Just being able to verbalise our annoyance is half of our emotion regulation. But for a child with speech delay, he cannot communicate this annoyance. And his negative emotions need an outlet — so, he throws a tantrum.

Language delay entails a lack of understanding of words, which in turn affects their ability to understand conversations. They may not understand that a question is a question. They don’t make eye contact. They do not interact with their peers or family members for social reasons, doing so only when they need something or to protest. Some kids don’t display separation anxiety when their parents leave them — some degree of separation anxiety is in fact good — because while they may be sensitive to environmental stimuli, they are not even aware of the surroundings. To them, you may even be just a tree.

[Editor’s note: Speech and language delays are not specific to autism.]

My mother used to tell me that I didn’t speak a single word until I was three. Being that every child is different, are these development milestones indicative of a child’s progress? I see some parents worry themselves sick with comparisons over what their children can or cannot do.

Development milestones are guidelines for us to refer to. They serve a purpose in that if we can catch certain symptoms of speech or language delays early, we can apply intervention during the golden period when it will be the most effective. Early intervention programmes are multi-disciplinary, and can include occupational, speech and behaviour therapies as well as psychological support. With these programmes, children can then grow out of their speech and language delays. It will also be possible for us to break certain negative behaviours, such as the throwing of tantrums, through teaching them lifelong coping strategies. When they are taught the right strategies, and when they apply them, they can thrive in a classroom setting and later on in life.

So, a diagnosis doesn’t necessarily doom a child’s future.

No, it doesn’t. Autistic children aren’t ‘doomed’; they just require specialised services that will help them to build life skills. Speech and language delays are just that — delays. With intervention, they can make progress. And once they can improve their speech developments, they can begin to make sense of social situations and conduct themselves more appropriately.

Read: Stories by Children Founder Chen Yuanhui on Awakening a Child’s Divinity and Wisdom