A Rainbow of Hope

By Project Mix & Mold (M&M), an eight-member Community Problem Solving (CmPS) group from Raffles Girl’s School (Secondary) working with children with autism in Rainbow Centre (Margaret Drive), a specialised institution catering to the more severe cases of autism.

“They think there is no greater hell than having a son who is locked in his own world, unaware that there’s a wider one to explore. But try having a son who is locked in his own world and still wants to make a connection. A son who tries to be like everyone else but truly doesn’t know how.” House Rules – Jodi Picoult

Most would recognise this bestseller book “House Rules” from renowned author Jodi Picoult. Revolved around Jacob Hunt, an eighteen year old with Asperger’s Syndrome, many realise that he is “different”, not quite the average young adult – he cannot look at people in the eye, is exasperatingly neat, and hopeless at reading social cues. But this is not a story full of air and fantasy. Such people do exist in the world around us, and these are just some of the symptoms of the wide spectrum we know as autism.

What is autism?

Autism is a developmental disability, which means that autism is inborn, and the child will continue to have autistic traits through his adulthood, though it may become less obvious with age. We must hence be able to recognise some of these symptoms, to prevent discrimination or the denial of opportunities for a condition they cannot control.

People with autism…

1. Have difficulty understand social norms such as taking turns and queuing up.

2. Have difficulty in communicating and interacting with others. Some may keep entirely to themselves, whilst others shout and scream.

3. Have difficulty taking views of others into perspective. They may seem insensitive and do strange actions. Once, we took care of a child who liked pulling other’s shirts up.

4. Have difficulty generalising what they have learnt.

5. May have sensory issues. They may not be comfortable holding hands, or be comfortable with loud noises, like other kids.

6. May have unusual, limited or repetitive activities and interests. Many are fixated on a single topic, such as MRT trains or dinosaurs, which may become an obsession.

Who are we?

We are Project Mix & Mold (M&M), an eight-member Community Problem Solving (CmPS) group from Raffles Girl’s School (Secondary) working with children with autism in Rainbow Centre (Margaret Drive), a specialised institution catering to the more severe cases of autism. When we went down initially for our field research, we discovered that the children were mainly learning basic vocational and life skills that were more useful to them, such as making their own sandwiches and reading. They did not do much enrichment activities like painting or singing. Even though there are Co-Curricular Activities (CCA) that allow talent development, we felt that due to the centre’s limited resources and short-handedness, it was not enough, potentially leaving some hidden talents undiscovered.

We strongly believe that despite their condition, children with autism deserve the same opportunities to discover and develop their talent. Together with the teachers at Rainbow Centre, we believe that by building a platform to showcase their special talents, and by providing enrichment programmes which can develop their speech, drama and music skills, each and every child will discover their own hidden talent, and hopefully develop it in his/her own time.

What we do – At the Root Level

In November 2011, we had the opportunity to facilitate the Outward Bound Singapore camp specially organised for the children. We spent two days and one night with them, catering to their various needs such as hygiene. This gave us invaluable experience in working with children with autism and served as an eye-opener for us.

Now in 2012, we have translated that experience into real impact. We are currently holding weekly sessions at Rainbow Centre every Friday. We teach 2 classes, where Class One is made up of six 7 to 8 year old students, while Class Two is made of seven 9 to 10 year olds. Every week, we choose a theme, such as Frogs, Colours or Chinese New Year, which forms the basis of our lessons. We then incorporate these themes into talent-related activities. Under Arts and Craft, we do painting, drawing, colouring, and origami, as well as teach basic skills such as pasting and cutting. We also do singing, percussion and reading. For instance, when one of the lessons was on “Boats”, we taught them how to sing “Row row row your boat” and how to fold boat origami.

A lot of preparation and time is spent in preparing each and every lesson. Because teaching materials for children with autism are not readily available, we have to make them ourselves and adapt them specifically to the children’s needs. As children with autism are tactile and visual learners, we extensively use Velcro and pictures with accompanying short sentences in books, instruction sheets, and lyrics sheets, to facilitate our lessons and engage the children.

In addition to our weekly sessions, we also facilitate special events at Rainbow Centre such as Deepavali and Chinese New Year celebrations.

What we do – At the Public Level

Understandably, not all understand what “autism” is and many hold very strong misconceptions of it. In order to increase autism awareness, we have launched a public awareness campaign, starting from our closest community – our school. We hope that by sharing more about autism, our peers will come to see them in a new light instead of perceiving them as “different”. We have hence shared our project via various platforms. Firstly, we have made announcements during morning assembly. We then set up a booth in our school for a week. We have also held an assembly talk, in conjunction with the theme of Community Service, to the Secondary 3 and 4 students on our project. In addition, we have started selling merchandise such as badges and magnets in aid of Rainbow Centre. We have created an original brochure on the different traits of autism and how we might help or interact with them, and we hope to be able to first distribute it to our school, and then to other secondary schools. We will also be setting up another booth during the first week of April, in conjunction with World Autism Day on 2nd of April. We also currently gathering volunteers and Service Learning groups to sustain our project.

How can I help?

But we can’t do it alone. We need YOUR help in building a society where these special people are embraced despite their differences, and accepted for who they are. Here are some steps in making that vision a reality:

1. Befriend a child with autism. Every child is unique, so getting to know the child by learning about his profile, such as his likes and dislikes, will go a long way. Have patience and compassion when dealing with them.

2. Be understanding towards children with autism when you come across them. Avoid staring rudely at them when they show strange behaviour.

3. Know how to communicate with them. Use pictures as most of them are visual learners. Give clear instructions as well. Children with autism take things literally and will be confused by metaphors such as ‘raining cats and dogs’.

4. Treat them with respect. They are just like you and I, only that they require more attention.

What we’ve learnt

Just as we hope the children have grown through our sessions, we ourselves have come a long way since the beginning of this project. We have learnt more about autism than we ever could have imagined when we first decided to embark on this project, and interacting with the children has been a true eye-opener. We have learnt about the difficulties and challenges that they face each day. We have learnt to empathise with their parents and guardians. We have learnt how to communicate with children with autism on their level. Being able to interact with these children has really changed our perceptions of special needs people. Before, we used to underestimate such people, thinking that they were less capable than us. But before long, we found that these people are really not that different from us and are especially talented, in their own ways.

Also, with every week, we experienced how it was like to be a teacher, a teacher who has been granted the responsibility of guiding these children with autism through their formative years. It was certainly not easy, what with each week always posing us new challenges and problems, such as constantly adapting our materials and being flexible with our schedule. We also had to be extremely patient and sensitive with the children when they acted up or refused to follow our instructions. Though we may spend just an hour every week down at the centre, the teachers spend easily seven hours a day, five days a week, working tirelessly. We really admire the teachers here and everywhere else in the world for their amazing dedication and commitment, and it is these people who have truly given us the inspiration to continue, no matter how hard it may get.

Lastly, we now understand the true spirit of giving and have gained many invaluable lessons, such as teamwork and perseverance. There really is no limit to what you can provide for those less fortunate than you are in society – the only two things that limit it is how big your heart is, and how big you are willing to let that passion to serve grow. It might be a long and hard journey to make a real change and difference, but with a lot of commitment and effort, it is possible. For us, seeing the smiles on the children’s faces, every single week, has really made everything worth it.

“Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.”

- Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

So ask yourself this question. Are children with autism really all that different from other children? Just like any other child, they deserve opportunities to grow and develop.

We, Project M&M, will try our best to give these children this opportunity, by helping them to uncover their hidden talents.

How to become a Volunteer

If you want to go further and shine rays of hope and happiness into the lives of these children, you can lend a helping hand to organisations dedicated to helping special needs people in Singapore, such as Rainbow Centre. If you have any enquiries on our project, please feel free to email us at projectmnm2012@gmail.com. We will be more than happy to share about our experiences.