My son Joachim Isaac is the first grandson in my husband’s family, and we were so proud when he was born. Our pet name for him is “Akim”. He was a quiet baby. He was strong and healthy, and he rarely cried.
In the first 3 years, he wouldn’t speak. We enrolled him in a playschool and employed a caregiver for him at home. I couldn’t stop worrying. Later, we moved him to a school with better facilities, hoping that he would clock his milestones and develop social skills.
But during class, we noticed that he struggled to follow instructions. While other children stayed in line, he would run all over the room. Sometimes he would flap his arms, or jump up and down, or scream for no reason. He had to be held, to calm him down.
When he was diagnosed with autism, I was in shock. I grieved for a long time. I was crying so much. I would wake up in the middle of the night in tears. My husband tried his best to help me accept the fact, but it was hard.
I was so used to excelling in everything I did. I was a psychology major in University and did well in the corporate world for almost 13 years before having a baby. I never expected that I would have a child with special needs.
But fate works in miraculous ways. My husband reminded me that I’ve always dreamt of being a teacher. I decided to leave the corporate world, and pursue a masters in special education. Akim became the subject of my thesis. And as part of my internship, I worked at Kids Nook Integrated School, a school for children with and without disabilities.
I enrolled Akim at Kids Nook soon after. He started behavioural therapy and special education classes. He went through another diagnosis. This time, we found they also had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
I learnt about the Special Olympics Young Athletes Program, a sport and play program that helps improve motor and cognitive skills, which the school adopted. They would let the children start their day with fun physical activities like throwing a ball, batting, and going through obstacle courses, before going to class.
I remember Akim’s first Young Athletes session. He was just 4. He was so excited he kept tripping and falling over everything. But every day, the activities helped a little in his concentration, balance and coordination. Jumping. Throwing. Catching. It was all so simple, easy to replicate at home, and effective. It gave Akim the foundation to build up his health and social skills.
It makes me laugh when I look back now and realize how far he’s come. He’s 10 now and in the second grade. He spent 6 years in kindergarten so he’s a little behind. But it’s ok. We want him to move at his own pace.
The past 10 years have been a test of our faith. We’ve put up with unkind remarks in church, in grocery stores, in restaurants. People stare. They point and whisper. One time, Akim was playing with the ice in the freezer at a supermarket. An elderly lady told me sternly to control him. This is not a playground, she said. She wouldn’t stop complaining about his lack of discipline even after I explained he is a child with autism. Her remarks hurt terribly. I sat in the car in tears. I called my husband and was inconsolable. Why were people so cruel? He was only 6 years old then.
We stopped going to church for 2 months. We stopped attending parties unless we were among close friends and family. People didn’t understand his behaviour. He would push other kids, thinking it was a form of greeting. We didn’t want him to be labelled as a ‘problem child’.
At swim class, he would pull other children’s hair. He would splash around and not train. Parents said they didn’t want him in their classes. I got him individual lessons instead. I’ve lost count of the coaches who have given up and left. My husband suggested we stop the lessons. I said no. Another parent of a child with intellectual disabilities told me never to give up. She went through the same thing. Her child is now a Special Olympics gold medalist, representing the Philippines.
Then one day, it just happened. Six years after we first enrolled him, he swam an entire lap. Now, he can swim the breaststroke and the front crawl.
My experiences made me stronger as a mother and an advocate. I wanted to educate not just my family, but the world. If everyone can have a ‘person-first’ mindset, the world will be a better place.
I joined the parent organizations to learn more about Akim’s condition. I spoke to neighbours, friends and their children about Akim and his disability. Now, when he sneaks out of the house and goes around playing with doorbells, they understand. Or when they hear him screaming, they do not judge or complain. At parties, their children play with him.
He’s learnt to set himself a routine. He starts every day with a workout. There is time for art, phone, TV. We use a timer. He knows that he has to wait. I started him on virtual art classes during the lockdown and uncovered a hidden talent. Akim is a natural artist. Some of his works were showcased in a virtual exhibition recently.
My son loves to sing. He has an angelic voice. We have since returned to the church and the priest said he can join the choir once the pandemic is over and we can all meet in person again.
Children are gifts. Typical or atypical, we must give them the opportunity to spread their wings. It is up to us to discover their talents and potential. My hope for Akim is simple. I want him to be independent, healthy, happy, and have a career he loves. Maybe in the arts, in music, or in sports. Who knows? Sky’s the limit.
My mother used to teach Akim when he was very little, to pray for God to cure him of autism. Now, his nightly prayer goes like this, “God, bless me, bless my autism and my ADHD.”
To find out more about how to be part of the #WalkForInclusion campaign, please download our summary guide here. We thank you for your generosity and look forward to your participation!