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One thing that struck me, reading a Straits Times report last month on the discussion of the Greenridge Crescent tragedy in Parliament, was that the issue of caring for special needs children has no easy answers.
On Jan 21, Xavier Yap, 48, was arrested after his twin 11-year-old boys with special needs Ethan and Ashton Yap were found lying motionless at a covered canal at Greenridge Crescent playground. Yap, who called the police, has been charged with murder.
That sparked off a discussion in Parliament last month where MPs brought up questions on issues facing special-needs children as well as their caregivers.
For example, MP for Jalan Besar GRC Denise Phua asked about more help for parents, and Sengkang MP He Ting Ru asked for the number of students in mainstream schools diagnosed as needing extra learning support.
Other MPs asked about respite care for highly stressed families and support for those with ageing parents.
There were three key takeaways from the debate in Parliament.
One, children on the spectrum, unique in their own way, require a spectrum of solutions.
Two, caregivers of special-needs children need to be assured of more options for their charges after they turn 18 and leave the school system.
And three, care for such children with special needs requires a whole-of-society approach; the burden shouldn’t be borne only by parents.
Incident gripped Singapore
Almost everyone I have spoken to has an opinion about the tragic event on Jan 21. Central to many of their hushed whispers is the question at the forefront of all of our minds: What could push a parent to do the unspeakable to his children?
Then comes the next whisper: The twins had special needs.
The case hasn’t just caught the attention of the public and our parliamentarians. Organisations that deal with special needs have highlighted the challenges faced by caregivers.
SG Enable, which seeks to enable persons with disabilities to live, learn, work and play in an inclusive society, posted two days after the tragedy that “Caring for children with special needs can be stressful and caregivers may face burnout or feel emotionally burdened. It is important for caregivers to look after your well-being.”
And a post on Facebook group Death Kopitiam suggested the following safety mechanism: “Perhaps a white flag system needs to be in place – when someone is struggling, they can safely take their children to care. Maybe our support networks are lacking, and this tragedy reminds us of what remains to be done to plug the gap in our social support towards special needs children and their families.
“In the wake of the Greenridge Crescent deaths, we all need to play our part in ensuring that people with special needs/disabilities and their families are included and supported in the community, and that they can ask for and receive adequate help.
“They should never be left alone or feel that the whole world is against them.”
Humbled by patience
The challenges that face a family with special needs are immense. And the daily pressures can add up. I am always amazed and humbled by the unconditional love and patience of my friends who have children with special needs.
My friends Bob Lee and his wife Hwee Hwee posted their poignant story on Facebook recently. Their son Jun Le, now 15, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when he was 3 years old.
On Christmas Eve, I spent the day with Bob, Hwee and Jun Le at the zoo. Jun Le loves food and he chose to eat roti prata for breakfast.
I had a wonderful day learning from Jun Le, who is different but certainly not strange at all. He sparkles with joy and responds with delight.
He is curious and funny like kids his mental age. I can see how much his parents love him and their love is clearly reciprocated.
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One of the hard-hitting realisations that struck me as I interacted with Jun Le is that he is a special young man whose mental capacity will not increase much with his physical age.
As parents, most of us need only worry about preparing our child to become an independent adult. But that option is far more complex for parents with a special-needs child. Because of the child’s special needs, that responsibility stays with the parents for life.
And that can be overwhelming.
Bob tells me that one of his main concerns is what happens when Jun Le grows up.
That concern culminated in an exhibition that he had at the Esplanade Tunnel last April, where Bob explained in an interview with The Pride that he knows that as he and Hwee Hwee grow older, they may not have the energy and strength to continue being caregivers for their child.
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He said then: “I am 45 years old now, but what happens in 20, or even 30 years?”
“Jun Le is 14 years old now. He is graduating in four years. What happens next?”
What happens when special needs children grow up?
That question begs the question: “Is there a community that will help take care of the child with special needs during and beyond the lifespan of the parents?”
Thankfully, many communities have been formed in the last twenty years.
There are podcasts by parents like Hita and Ayu, whose son, Naseer, has special needs. They believe that a change of mindset from the public would help parents of children with autism cope better, as well as help them see their children’s potential, and not their problems.
“Focus on your child’s talents, not their disability,” Ayu told The Pride in an interview. “As parents, we worry about how our children’s future is going to be. Will people accept him? Will others understand?”
I cannot imagine the anguish of the father in the Greenridge Crescent tragedy. That to me, is the most heart-wrenching part of the story.
But beyond a murder investigation and a profound family tragedy is a wake-up call to all of us to reach out to families with special needs.
They are all around us. We cannot afford just to be aware. We need to accept them and reach out to them in practical ways.
Caring for children (and adults) with special needs requires a whole-of-society approach.
To assuage the concerns of parents like Bob and Hwee, those among us who run businesses should reach out to them by creating jobs for people with special needs to be gainfully engaged in.
Like what Pan Pacific Hotels Group’s executive director Wee Wei Ling is doing for people with disabilities, on top of her role as chairperson of Project We Care and Extra•Ordinary People.
Or what Project Dignity is doing with its Dignity Mama, where caregivers work together with their adult special needs children, and Dignity Kitchen initiatives.
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This is practical.
But you don’t have to be a business owner to make a difference. All you need is to be a friend — a listening ear if not a helping hand.
Reaching out could help to prevent such tragedies from happening again.