He was sitting by himself on the bus when three other youths boarded.
Two sat behind him and the third looked at him briefly before sitting somewhere else.
Through it all, 16-year-old Sheth Ryan sat quietly, looking out the window at the passing scenery.
It didn’t bother him, but it certainly bothered me.
You see, Ryan has autism, and he was travelling with some volunteers in a pilot project to teach travel independence to commuters on the spectrum.
Called the Travel Makers Programme, the programme is a co-creation project between the Public Transport Council under the ambit of the caring SG Commuters Committee, MINDS, and Youth Corps Singapore (YCS).
Other stories you might like
The programme kicked off with a bonding session which was held recently at The Red Box, where Ryan and seven other students with intellectual disabilities from MINDS met youth volunteers who guided them to the Esplanade, with a teacher or guardian in attendance.
“This is to impart relevant skills and knowledge for students with special needs to navigate Singapore’s public transport system safely and confidently,” said Suzana Soo, the Director of MINDS Lifelong Learning Department.
MINDS is a social service agency that advances the development, well-being and aspirations of persons with intellectual disabilities (PWIDs).
At The Red Box, I met Evangeline Ang, 19, Aden Ong, 19, and Keith Tan, 21, and followed them as they guided Ryan from The Red Box to Somerset MRT. Ryan’s teacher, S, who did not want to be named, was with us to give tips and advice.
At the bus stop in front of The Red Box, the volunteers guided Ryan to read the bus stop displays as they knew he had trouble reading letters and characters.
Aden, one of the volunteers, explained how he sensed that Ryan would be better working with visuals and icons rather than letters or numbers.
“I have a younger cousin with autism and when I was much younger, I didn’t understand what autism was, so I didn’t understand why he was so different from me,” Aden shared with The Pride.
His cousin had a speech impairment and was socially awkward. At such a young age, Aden couldn’t grasp the differences in their behaviours, but he saw how his aunt communicated with his cousin.
“I remember she had this book she created with Velcro and a lot of squares with images and words, it could be fruits or foods he liked, or certain locations and activities,” Aden explains.
“Whenever my cousin wanted something, he’d open the book and paste the images onto the Velcro. That was his way of communicating.”
After the bus stop, during our 10-minute walk to Somerset MRT station, Ryan would stride confidently at the front of the group but slow down and look back at us if he needed prompting.
When we reached Somerset MRT, Ryan needed to use the toilet and we encouraged him to use his Help Card on the lanyard around his neck to interact with the MRT staff members.
The Help Card is used when the students need help or assistance, especially in emergencies and in situations where the students are not vocal.
Though Ryan was very shy and had trouble expressing his needs to the staff, with the assistance of S and the Help Card, the MRT staff kindly took him to the toilet on the station platform.
After this, we took the train to the Esplanade.
During the ride, I asked S why Ryan was chosen for the programme.
He explained that Ryan takes vocational classes at MINDS, which means that after graduating, he would be given external work attachment opportunities, and would need to travel to his workplace.
“Ryan needs to learn how to travel independently to go for his work attachments smoothly,” explained S.
At the Esplanade
After we reached the Esplanade, we headed to the outdoor theatre, where an orchestra was playing.
Worried that Ryan might be triggered by loud music, I checked on him, but he was completely unbothered. I was reminded that while loud music could be a common trigger for those on the spectrum, they all differ.
It was endearing to see Ryan’s big grin as he took pictures at the riverside beside the outdoor theatre.
While Ryan was busy taking his photographs, I was talking to S and Evangeline about how Travel Makers could be beneficial for people like him.
They told me that the Travel Makers Programme doesn’t simply aim to help PWIDs learn travel independence.
It also aims to get the public to be more empathetic towards PWIDs in public spaces, especially on public transport.
S shared that PWIDs too, need travelling skills to get around.
“Travelling skills are something everyone needs to learn eventually. We wouldn’t want them to be trapped at home alone, having to rely on others to travel or access community services. He also needs to know basic road safety too, like when to cross the zebra crossings, things like that are very important,” S explained.
With this, learning travel independence itself is already difficult, but when the public shuns them on public transport, it makes the process harder.
“I’ve seen people glare, mutter under their breaths, or actively avoid persons with disabilities when some of them would stim in public,” says Evangeline.
Stimming describes self-stimulatory behaviour that involves repetitive movements or sounds. It is often seen in people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
As Evangeline and I talked more, I realised that such attitudes are not uncommon towards PWIDs.
It was heartbreaking to see it myself during the programme, like when those three youths seemed uncomfortable with sitting near Ryan.
Of course, these instances might come from a place of ignorance or lack of awareness.
This is why it is important to have events like the Travel Makers Programme for members of the public to learn to be more understanding.
“With Travel Makers, we hope that the public learns to put themselves in the shoes of the people with special needs,” explains Mei Leng Chan, a Transition Planning Coordinator from MINDS.
“It’s not that they want to behave like that, but sometimes it’s the disability itself that affects them to behave in certain ways.”
Evangeline shared she valued her volunteering opportunities as she gets to educate herself and be more gracious to PWIDs.
There are things you get to learn only when you volunteer or have personal exposure to them.
“I come from a background where I already have a basic understanding of people with special needs because my family members are teachers to people with special needs, and not everyone has that same background or level of awareness” explains Evangeline.
“This is why volunteering is so important, as you get to learn so much about the people you’re helping and how to keep an open mind.”