We are the proud parents of five beautiful children. Our eldest son Aaron, who is now 20, was diagnosed with autism when he was 3. Our youngest children, 12-year-old twins Daniel and Gabriel, were also found to have autism four years ago.
People ask us all the time, whether it is tough bringing up three children with autism. Honestly, we don’t have an answer. We have no comparison with what is deemed “normal”. This is our normal. As a family, we go to movies, we travel, we go swimming. We are not limited in any way.
Aaron is mostly non-verbal. He can say his name, and a few simple words. His condition was detected when he was much younger because we knew something was different about him when he didn’t speak past the age of 2.
The twins are different. They were diagnosed only at the age of 8 because their symptoms were less obvious. The only hints were that they were hyperactive, and had learning difficulties in school.
Aaron has been going to a centre for therapy since he was a child. There, we met other parents of children with disabilities and together we formed an advocacy group called “No Limits” some years ago. We wanted to empower children with disabilities through sports. There was a boy with autism who was fantastic at swimming and another who was great at running. We met swimmers with visual disabilities who took part in triathlons.
Through the centre, we also found out about Special Olympics in the Philippines. We realized that our goals were aligned. We all wanted to raise awareness of issues faced by people with disabilities and promote change.
As parents, we wanted our children to be able to do the things that other people can do and be happy with their achievements. As a society, we need to provide our children the opportunity to do that in an inclusive environment, especially for those with intellectual disabilities which is often less obvious and almost “invisible”.
In the beginning, it was a challenge to get Aaron to try any sporting activities. He doesn’t like to be out in the sun. He would get angry and throw tantrums if there was even a drop of perspiration on his face.
We found other ways to get involved. Both of us are doctors (Dr Dindo is an ophthalmologist, while Dr Arlyn is a pediatrician). We decided to put our medical skills to good use, and volunteer with Special Olympics Philippines’ Healthy Athletes program to provide free eye check-ups to athletes with intellectual disabilities.
We also got involved in Special Olympics Young Athletes, a sport and play program for children with and without intellectual disabilities aged 2 to 7. We would take our children to these events, and the twins would join in the fun although they were already past the age limit by then.
Aaron would come too, although he would sit out most of the activities. The turning point came about three years ago. There was a unified activity held at Aaron’s school, for children with and without intellectual disabilities to take part in sports together.
Imagine our joy and surprise when we saw Aaron playing bocce for the very first time. There was no air-conditioning, but he stayed the whole day without a word of complaint. Watching him enjoy himself with the other participants was a big win for us.
Our children inspire and do us proud with their achievements and compassion all the time. Gabriel won a singing contest some time ago, and also took part in a poetry contest. And even though Aaron is non-verbal, he shows his love and care towards his younger siblings in the little things he does.
Every night, he gathers them and puts them to bed. If his brother Jacob doesn’t take a bath, Aaron would bring him a fresh change of clothes to remind him to clean up. And if any member of the family isn’t home, Aaron waits up.
We know of parents of children with disabilities who limit themselves. They feel they can’t do certain activities or travel anymore. But we feel it’s important for us to simply adjust. All it takes is a bit of patience and improvisation.
When the twins turned 7, we took the family overseas for a holiday. Daniel is into sweet foods, while Gabriel loves spicy foods. Aaron, on the other hand, prefers crispy and fried foods. We struggled to find food that they were used to. It was rather hilarious. In the end, we solved the issue of Daniel’s craving for a specific dish of spaghetti at a convenience store selling ready-to-eat pasta.
Going to church was also a struggle when the children were younger. They get restless having to sit for over an hour, and would run around and get everyone frustrated with us. Instead of skipping church, we improvised by standing outside. These days, the children are able to sit through the entire service without much commotion. Occasionally, there is still an incident or two, but it’s ok.
When people meet us for the first time, there is often that hint of pity when they find out about our children. To us, simple things may be less ordinary, but we cannot live our lives envying others. We will not take no for an answer. We do not believe in giving up; especially not on our own children.