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For the past five months, he has been training a group of volunteers in Bukit Batok to upskill their knowledge on autism.
The aim of this initiative: for Bukit Batok to become Singapore’s first autism-awareness town.
Albert Lee leads the Bukit Batok Green Ribbon Task Force, which supports the mental health of residents. He tells The Pride: “We want Bukit Batok to be a kind, caring town, where residents have a greater understanding of autism and possess some skilled knowledge so that there can be a greater level of support. (We want) a person with autism to feel comfortable walking around the town, knowing support is there.”
So how is that linked to these lights strung along Bukit Batok West Ave 3?
Albert explains that to raise awareness about autism among residents, Bukit Batok West Ave 3 was lit with purple lights, flags and banners as part of The Purple Parade’s activities in October. Both Autism Association Singapore and Eden School, a special education provider, are at Ave 3.
“This is to create a conversation about autism,” Albert says.
The Purple Parade is a non-profit organisation and is Singapore’s largest movement to support inclusion and celebrate abilities of persons with disabilities. It has a series of events culminating with a virtual concert on Oct 30.
While buildings such as the Marina Bay Sands and landmarks such as the Helix Bridge have been lit purple as part of previous years’ celebrations, this is the first time the lights will be seen in a residential neighbourhood.
Inspired by an act of kindness
The Bukit Batok’s Green Ribbon Task Force, a ground-up initiative with fifteen volunteers, was driven by an incident in March this year when a teen with autism got lost after boarding the wrong bus.
Thankfully, another couple saw the boy, realised that he was distressed and helped him. They were able to recognise that the teen has autism and could calm him down before his parents found him because their own child is also on the spectrum.
Albert says: “A typical person wouldn’t know that this child walking along the road could be highly distressed. With an autism-awareness town, the aim is for more residents to understand autism and learn how to communicate with persons with the condition so that if a similar situation happens in the future, they will be able to help.”
Support from neighbours
Albert explains that turning Bukit Batok into an autism-friendly town requires a multi-pronged approach.
It starts with people willing to equip themselves with the necessary skills and knowledge.
He was inspired by Singapore’s first dementia-friendly town in Chong Pang which through bus stop advertisements, social experiment videos, getai events and an ongoing campaign, has improved awareness and understanding of dementia, both in businesses and among the public.
“If a whole community can work together, there will be a greater level of support,” Albert says.
He is working with Autism Association Singapore and Eden School to pilot the initiative.
Bukit Batok is a mature, densely populated neighbourhood with 121,000 residents. With Covid safe distancing measures, there may be a greater chance of conflict among neighbours as more stay home.
Albert says: “Over the past few months, there have been incidents of neighbours slamming their doors. If you look on the surface, it could just be neighbours being difficult. But, it may also be because someone in the household has autism or special needs.”
“This could be their way of coping with being locked up at home or suddenly having all their family members around. Without having neighbours who understand, it can result in conflict.”
The task force has also distributed postcards containing details of institutions in or around Bukit Batok that provide mental health support and awareness talks on autism.
Bukit Batok Member of Parliament Murali Pillai tells The Pride: “Through such programmes, we will be able to ensure that Bukit Batok will remain a kind and caring community, for one and all.”
Bringing awareness to residents
Following The Purple Parade, Albert and his team are planning a photography exhibition in 2022 which will display photos taken by persons with autism.
It will be led by artist and photographer Bob Lee who recently had a photo exhibition titled Finding What’s Next at the Esplanade Tunnel, which highlighted the challenging circumstances surrounding autistic youths after they finish their studies when they turn 18.
Reaching out to parents
In the meantime, Bukit Batok Green Ribbon Task Force volunteers have reached out to parents of children with autism to find out firsthand about the daily challenges they face.
Volunteer Fiona Sim, 50, who works as a secretary, says: “I learnt a lot through this journey. I understand autism families better and how the kids interact in the community and school. How are we going to approach them? We need to have patience… and help them to be independent so that they can take care of themselves.”
Another volunteer, Prescealia Ong, who works in real estate says: “Parents with autistic children go through tremendous stress. Their daily lives are different. As a volunteer, I feel sad that as a society we cannot do more to help them.”
“We can do more if we come together to help children with autism, to create lifelong learning opportunities for these children to help them to be more independent.”
Albert adds that he hopes to change the mindset and stigma surrounding autism, as some people still have negative opinions surrounding the disorder.
He says: “They associate autism with mental illness due to lack of awareness and understanding. How can we reach out to individuals who may have the heart to help but have the wrong information that impedes them from taking that first step to make themselves available?”
Passion to help people with special needs
What motivated Albert to lead this autism-awareness initiative?
Albert says that he joined the special needs industry in 2005 as an educational therapist at the Dyslexia Association of Singapore before becoming a lecturer to support persons with special needs.
During his tutoring, he recognised that many of his students needed extra help not so much because they had dyslexia, but because their dyslexia presented with other conditions such as autism, which made it difficult for them doing group work and social communication.
That got him interested to learn more about the condition to help his students better.
There was also another, more personal reason for doing so, says Albert. It was around that same time that he realised his 11-year-old godson, who was born and lives in Germany, has Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder characterised by difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication.
Fortunately, he is high-functioning and receives strong support in school. His parents also have planned well for his future.
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Albert says: “My hope is that my godson, if he ever decides to come back to Singapore to work and live, will find a place that is receptive to people like him and allow them to contribute effectively to society, be gainfully employed, and live independently.”
“This may only happen in 25 years. But it has to start somewhere.”