Often, when parents are given a diagnosis of their child’s disabilities, the feeling is of despair or guilt. Some give up after a while. Therapy can be expensive, and perhaps regular schooling is not an option, writes Latisha Merican. This is the last of a 3-part series, the first of which is here and the second part is here.

However, developmental psychologist Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences states that we are intellectually different, with the ability to develop multiple intelligences, which then follows that methods of teaching should be varied. Unlike the traditional passive classroom approach where all children are expected to learn by sitting quietly, listening to the teacher up front and taking notes from the board, and then tested on the same subjects in the same way, there are actually eight components of intelligence: spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, linguistic, logical-Mathematical, interpersonal (social intelligence), intrapersonal and naturalistic.

A child who is not thriving in school may be inclined towards other forms of learning and interests and should be encouraged. Maths for example, a subject feared by many, is taught the same two-dimensional way. However, when I teach lower primary Maths, I incorporate visual and experiential learning and combine it with life skills. Fractions is taught by figuring out how to share twelve donuts equally among five persons, or by baking a simple recipe which would be halved or doubled. Instead of expensive manipulatives, skills are developed using baking tools and ingredients – measuring, pouring, whisking and washing up afterwards. The learning outcome of a topic on fractions is not confined to just numbers, but life skills, hand-eye-coordination, and perhaps most importantly, the discovery of a new interest or innate talent.

While Mirza was superb in Maths and the Sciences and did not require outside help, his lack of coordination and struggles in taekwon-do class induced me to engage Marcel Fabian, a special needs teacher certified in several martial arts disciplines as well as other sports. Marcel identified the disconnection between Mirza’s (and Shiraz’s) upper and lower bodies resulting in feeble turning kicks. He demonstrated step-by-step instructions on how to first rotate the shoulders, then the waist, so that maximum centrifugal force is generated. A year on, with Mirza’s determination and Sensei Marcel’s coaching, I was told by Mirza’s taekwon-do teacher Sir Faisal that Mirza’s reverse hooking kicks were awesome.

Since then Marcel became the designated physical activity teacher who has helped Mirza overcome physical and mental obstacles. From screaming in waist-deep water, under his calm tutelage Mirza has emerged a very confident swimmer. Marcel also teaches ninjutsu, whose components of flexibility and agility allow the child to learn how to roll and fall down safely. Sensei Marcel tailors his program to include parkour activities such as vaulting and balancing atop fences. 

Mirza also learns ninjutsu from Marcel Fabian, a special needs teacher, whose components of flexibility and agility allow the child to learn how to roll and fall down safely.

Bushcraft

Mirza is currently doing two types of bushcraft; the first kind going solo into the jungle with Raman Bah Tuin, a Semai Orang Asli. He brings a parang and other essentials. Classes start with collecting firewood, shaving twigs and starting a fire, and then cooking food. Chicken is skewered onto sharpened bamboo stakes, rice is folded in bemban leaves which is then tucked in bamboo, along with sweet potatoes and corn, and water is added. Raman makes a cooking stand on which the stakes are placed while the bamboo is lodged upright close to the fire, boiling its contents. Along with the lesson of the day, Mirza also does his bit of community work by weaving bertam leaves and erecting shelters for traveling Orang Asli while Shiraz put his expertise in solar power to good use by making a portable light unit for the Orang Asli or Raman’s guests to use the toilet at night.

With Campmaster Vee, Mirza learns to be fully prepared before going into the jungle. He dons jungle boots, a hat, light-colored t-shirt and pants (bushcraft emphasizes lighter colors that allow contrast with blood red in case of bleeding), outer long-sleeved shirt, leech socks, a whistle, and is equipped with a knife. His backpack contains a water bladder, lunch, a notebook and pencil, a medical kit, ground sheet and mosquito repellent. He learns to walk safely in the jungle to the campsite where lessons are held. Currently he is learning about the plant kingdom. There was some excitement during one lesson when a wireless camera trap in the area picked up a sunbear meters away just minutes before.

While the goal of this class is jungle survival skills, Campmaster Vee, who has observed him, also imparts valuable life lessons, especially in managing his emotional self-control and insecurity issues. I was overjoyed to know that Mirza is making progress and is better socially. Although he is the youngest in class, as a senior, he has occasionally been given the task to teach the newer students, which helps improve his social skills as well as teaching methods.

Taekwon-do at Synergy Taekwon-do Club

Mirza enjoys taekwon-do at Synergy Taekwon-do Club with Sir Faisal Mustaffa, a fantastic teacher. Mirza is probably the only autistic child at the center, but Sir Faisal recognizes that he needs a little bit of extra help, and continues to encourage and support him. He has come far in his class, and is currently waiting to take his black belt 1st Dan grading.

We explored mini tennis with Coach Ahmad Fairuz Ahmad Seth and discovered that after just a few lessons Mirza managed to play quite well and enjoyed it immensely. Coach Fairuz meanwhile, learned from Mirza about the magnus effect and ball trajectory.

Mini tennis with coach Ahmad Fairuz became a two-way learning curve for both Mirza and coach.

Initially hesitant at first, Mirza enjoys modeling classes with ARP Elite Model. Teacher and former model Evelyn Nadal is very patient and has trained Mirza to walk calmly and sedately on the catwalk, resulting in a part in a fashion show, wearing designer outfits.

Because he is quite articulate, and has clear speech, I encouraged him to create videos for his YouTube channel. The aptly-named Mirza Michael’s Autistic Adventures has contents as diverse as his interests, from making fried rice to explaining fractals to his father who was just trying to have a peaceful lunch.

Mirza is homeschooled but academically learns on his own via Khan Academy and the various YouTube videos available.

Unfortunately, for the community at large, autism is still a stigma. Nowhere do I feel more at home than with the members of the Autism Café Project (ACP), an initiative started by Adli Yahya, whom I met two years ago. Through this, the children have taken part in bazaars selling Tareq’s awesome chicken rice. The chicken rice components and dinnerware are manipulatives used to help Mirza gain confidence, while taking orders improves their social and listening skills. Because in this ACP group every child has a different dis-ability and talent, everyone is accepted wholeheartedly and we progress together by supporting each other and finding opportunities.

Another form of support that I strongly encourage is to talk to a therapist. Shiraz started seeing a family and paediatric psychologist two years ago, as a supplement to parental guidance. Similar to positive parenting techniques, the psychologist starts by asking background questions and addressing the most urgent matters first. Later sessions include distress tolerance and emotions management, life skills are taught and transferred, with the ultimate goal being the individual’s ability to self-manage, with checkpoint sessions along the way.

Prior to discovering that his children have autism, when faced with a task or situation so simple or straightforward but yet defeated the children, Michael describes often feeling bewildered, losing patience and lashing out at the wrong things, and wondering if something is wrong with them. Now, he says that he KNOWS that something is wrong with them; however, the feeling is of a positive one. He is proud of the things they CAN do, he understands why they do what they do, and adapts the parenting and communication styles.

It is amazing that we subject our children to the same rat race regardless of their proclivities and abilities. School was a must to many, all children the same age were lumped into the same class, exams must be passed with flying colors and a child who can’t do an academic subject is deemed stupid. Shifting perspectives and priorities allowed me to discard traditional expectations. While I do find myself getting frustrated at someone’s inability to perform a task, we now focus our energies on finding out more about our personalities. We embrace, celebrate and enhance what innate skill and talent the children have, while providing support and encouragement and ways in helping them manage their dis-abilities.

I am thankful for my children, who are kind and thoughtful and who have taught me to be patient. This article was written with the assistance of Shiraz who helped provide more examples of his personal coping skills; Mirza and Shiraz’s psychologist who gave his expertise on the subject from a psychological point of view. Shiraz is now 19 and tutoring a child sitting for iGCSEs. He has made many friends, and not to my surprise, his friends are also similar to him, and polite and well-behaved.

If only there were more like us. – New Malaysia Herald

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