Our Three Boys
We have three boys, Joshua (14), Joseph (10),and Jonathan (7).
Joshua was a difficult baby to look after when he was born. He didn’t sleep. Every half hour he would thrash and cry. I have never forgotten how I had to massage him every other hour at night even when he was three, while battling nausea when I was pregnant with Joseph, my second boy. We sought the opinion of countless doctors, but it all drew a blank. He also began to have tantrums whenever things didn’t go to plan, had lots of phobias and tactile challenges, and was fixated with numbers and alphabets. Josh was essentially a highly anxious child. Eventually he was diagnosed with autism at three. It took the doctor a mere twenty minutes to diagnose.
We began our journey of weekly therapies of speech and OT. We sought alternative therapies like diets, homeopathy, even cranial sacral. None left a deep impression. Just lots of energy and resources drained because we were desperate parents. When Josh was four, he was handled too roughly by disbelieving teachers who felt he was faking his rigidity. He suffered an emotional breakdown and had to leave school. That was our lowest point. We tried hard to get him into another school, but many rejected him when they heard he was autistic. That feeling of having your child rejected was quite devastating.
Eventually one school accepted him. And that school was critical in turning things around. The teachers understood what he needed: a place that doesn’t place demands on him; a place to simply heals; a place that affirms him. And that school did just that. They met him at where he was, and never threw him challenges beyond what he could bear. Essentially, it was very much like the RDI concept – the essence of building competence, child directed. Not academic system or statistics directed. As Josh began to heal emotionally in that safe haven, we also started the RDI program at that time.
RDI was quite challenging for us at first. This was one therapy whereby you cannot spend money for people to do your work. It is essentially a lifestyle therapy. We started the most challenging part of slowing ourselves down. That was very very difficult for me as I tend to try to do too many things at one time, talk too fast, rush too much. I did not realise it doesn’t encourage my son to think deeper, reflect more, or have time to consolidate or explore with his limited resources. Joshua, being a very anxious child, needed a lot of time and space to reorganise himself. To be less functional in his thoughts and interaction. The word was PAUSE. In fact, even our communication changed from imperative (E.g. Pick up your toys, go shower) to a more declarative form (Eg Oops . ,I nearly tripped over the toys, you looked sticky). Though we sounded weird at times, we see him thinking more, pausing, slowing down to process.
Eventually as we continue to work on increasing his confidence with manageable challenges, even his phobias started to fade away. One memorable milestone was water activities. Due to his water phobia, we even weaved in water challenges in stages, while regulating him through other activities. Eg accidentally wetting his shoes, to wetting his feet , then misting around him, getting him to wet his face. So many little steps just to get him to build confidence to face water. And every milestone reached was spotlighted accordingly to seal his feelings of competence. We also had to learnt not to say ” good job”,but rather, “I really liked the effort you took to get messy and built this”. This was because Joshua, and even Joseph and Jonathan were already too hung up on failures, so we had to turn their spotlight away from the end product, but rather the process to it. Not easy, but still necessary.
As Joshua continued to improve in feeling good about himself, we began to do lots of mini chats, with RDI objectives in mind. One such objective was about perspective taking. We spend lots of time sharing our own experiences without telling him what is right or wrong. Ham also has a nightly “under the table talk”. This was because Joshua was very stressed during P1 and would often hide under the table. But he still needed to think out his stress triggers, and this became a precious time for Father and son bonding, allowing Joshua outlets to express and release his stress too. These sessions were precious channels that allowed us to understand his struggles, and are opportunities to share common experiences. We were so encouraged one day when during one car ride, while we were having a fairly heated exchange over some incident, Josh was able to tell us ” Mom, we all have different perspectives, there may be no right or wrong, I just have a different opinion from you. ” Wow. We knew all the time spent talking and sharing, inviting each other’s opinion, without dictating, helped.
Josh is now fourteen. He has been discharged from RDI. He is passionate about his brothers, Joseph who is also autistic, and Jonathan, who has language impairment and auditory processing issues. He also volunteers in the church special needs family camp. I am so thankful that even as I began to be so stretched caring for his younger brothers, Josh continues to mature with a heart of compassion, a quiet sense of self-worth, and an extraordinary measure of patience for his brothers. He has also learnt to accept himself as not perfect, but good enough.
Joseph is also doing RDI now. It was initially challenging switching between the two brothers as their objectives were so different. Hence I was so glad when Josh ‘graduated’. Joseph too had a major emotional breakdown when the kindergarten he attended pushed him beyond what he could manage during the year end concert rehearsals. His breakdown was worse than Joshua’s. He would often scream in the middle of the night and refused to let me out of his sight for months. He often gets rooted to the spot because he could not decide which direction to go if mom was not there with him. Neither was he able to attend school for more than a year without me shadowing him. Only when he entered Pathlight 1.5 years later then he started to settle in that highly structured environment.
While Pathlight was good in giving him a structured environment, we still need to challenge him to face the real world. As such, our RDI objectives had to be even more broken down for him, going into basics like non verbal gestures and facial expressions. These took more than a year each, which was very hard for me to bear. But we have no choice as we needed to make sure he had mastered it, and not just functionally copying. More than a year too was actually spent simply getting him to look inwards into his own body and understanding his emotions. It was nerve wrecking because Joseph hated it, yet we had to make him face it. Our speech became quite melodramatic, and would go like that ” just now I was so angry . . My heart jumped so hard and my neck is hot…or my head felt like a hammer was pounding it “. Joshua often watches me doing RDI with Joseph and would ask “Mom. Nobody talk like that in everyday life!” But the good was my younger boy also benefited. Though he wasn’t autistic, he benefited from all emotion talk, and learnt to be expressive with facial expressions too. He picked up non-verbals by age two, simply from watching me and Joseph. We were comforted when recently Joseph suddenly commented that when he hears the ziplock bag closed, his neck felt tight. We realised all the efforts in the last one year paid off as my son is now able to look inwards at his own body without any scaffolding.
While it has been challenging over these years plus submitting weekly clips and reviews for RDI, I am much comforted to see how the basic principles of RDI continue to guide us in our parenting styles. To be open to one another, to slow down, to affirm, and to build competence. To be very real in sharing our own experiences and even acknowledging our weaknesses to one another. I realised that our children can only soar, with all our efforts in therapy, only when we provide them that home ground that is secure, a place where mistakes are to be forgiven and learnt from, and where challenges are platforms for building competence, not condemnation.
For us as parents, we are reminded always to pause, and smell the roses.
Chern Chieh and Ham.