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In my dreams, I have long conversations with my teenage son Alex.
He would tell me about what makes him happy, what his day at school was like and sometimes, we’d have deep and meaningful discussions about what he would like to be when he grows up. He would speak eloquently, sometimes amazing me with his astonishing vocabulary.
Unfortunately, whatever we say to each other always remains unfinished — I would wake up with a longing ache in my chest where I think my heart is because these conversations exist only in my dreams.
The reason is, Alex is on the autism spectrum. He rarely speaks to me, and certainly not in complete sentences. He talks a lot more with his grandma, my wife and his mother Cara, and his helper, Auntie Rizza. He would occasionally send me a text message — though usually only when he wants me to do something for him.
When he does speak to me, “Papa, please don’t disturb me,” is his most oft-employed line, followed by, “What is this?”
He once showed me a picture of an animal and asked me that. I studied it for a moment, hoping I would find a caption, before conceding, “It looks like a goat to me.”
Alex then gave me a look as if I was mentally-challenged and announced in a monotone that concealed his disappointment or irritation or both: “It’s a Himalayan Tahr.”
Right. I should have known that, from the many visits I’ve made with him to the Singapore Zoo and the Night Safari.
Alex’s encyclopaedic knowledge is not restricted to animals – he loves flags and can match every sovereign country on this planet with their national flags, name and spell their administrative capitals without the benefit of spellcheck and sing all their national anthems even if these are in languages I’ve never heard him speak.
And if you asked him what any word of the lyrics in those anthems meant, he would provide you with a Google translation — but without consulting Google.
Yes, he has an astounding vocabulary — which isn’t confined to English.
It was through Alex that I learnt that “Aquila” — a brand of classical guitar strings that I use — was the Italian word for “eagle”. Well, I should have known that, too (there is a picture of an eagle on the packaging) but I’m nowhere near as clever as my son.
Being a parent of an autistic child is not always full of pleasant surprises such as the aforesaid, though. Some surprises can be downright nasty, like when a sensory overload such as people talking too loudly or when a car honk triggers a monumental meltdown.
We’ve had to put up with discrimination, too, like the looks of horror or contempt when there is an unmitigated outburst, or when a flute instructor at a music school inexplicably cancelled his lesson just an hour before it started, then insisted his wife told him he “should not be teaching an autistic child”.
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Alex has not gone for another flute lesson since, though he would take his flute out of its case to play every once in a while. Meanwhile, he has started taking piano lessons, but it is more for fun — I am under no illusion that he would be attempting any of Rachmaninov’s piano concertos soon because the dynamic range of those pieces would be too overwhelming for his hypersensitive hearing.
While Alex has shown an interest in music, the manner in which his brain is hard-wired may obstruct him from attaining what “normal” or “neurotypical” people might consider excellence.
Finding calm in art
But there appears to be no such impediment in another of his favourite pursuits — drawing.
For as long as I can remember, Alex would draw whenever he had a chance to. It would keep him calm whenever he felt anxious.
He would draw animals, people, anthropomorphised animals, anthropomorphised animals playing musical instruments, people playing musical instruments, people performing various stunts and actions, and objects, especially very detailed flags.
More recently and with Cara’s support, Alex has been experimenting with materials such as charcoal powder, impasto and paints, and uses different types of brushes and tools as well as his fingers. He is open to trying new methods, taking instructions from Cara as well as observing her while she does her work.
He would then spend hours practising his craft so much so that he now demonstrates a remarkable confidence in his rendition of shapes and lines.
And through his drawings, he is able to express himself beautifully in his own special way, even while he tries to make sense of the world around him.
Cara and I posted some of his images on social media, and astonishingly for us, we had friends requesting Alex to produce art for them.
On account of the unexpected demand for his work, Cara asked Alex if he would like to stage an art exhibition, and Alex, who turned 16 in May, got excited by the idea. We had to explain to him that he would have to part with some of his works if they were sold and asked him if he wanted to share the proceeds of the sales of the paintings.
He agreed and picked the Cat Welfare Society because of his love for cats. (He has a female American curl and a male American shorthair and he gets along magnificently with them – he would at times appear to be communicating with them in a non-verbal manner and they seem to understand one another perfectly.)
Alex’s first solo exhibition, called simply, I Am Alex, will be a virtual walk-through – on desktop or mobile device – of a simulated gallery that will display 45 of his works on acrylic, with artwork labels containing Alex’s description of his works as told to Cara.
Half of the proceeds from the sales of his paintings will go to the Cat Welfare Society. Alex has so far raised close to a thousand dollars for CWS through the sale of his pre-exhibition works, and hopes to raise $2,000 in total for the cause.
We did plan a physical event planned for Alex, but there were challenges on account of coronavirus and safe-distancing measures, along with the worry that having Alex present at an event which required him to meet many people could potentially trigger a meltdown.
So this virtual exhibition is a less intimidating, less invasive way of letting the audience into his mind.
Perhaps Alex has dreams of communicating with me – or anyone else – the way I have dreams of having conversations with him. Perhaps if I were to dream the dreams Alex dreams, the conversations would be replaced with images.
And drawing is Alex’s way of helping us understand him better – by sharing his world with us through his art.