Author Spreads Autism Understanding All Around the World
My Writing Journeys
I’m often asked, “Why autism?,” followed by “What’s Wayang?” when I tell people about my children’s book, Open—A Boy’s Wayang Adventure. The answers don’t come in one-liners. My path as a writer has been a long and complicated one. I started a food blog some years back to cope with the loneliness of living in a new city. Through my research about food, I came across food-linked obsessions and conditions which I shelved to the back of my mental library. These will resurface again in this book. But moving again meant that the food blog took a hiatus. Not long into moving to Singapore, I found catharsis in writing Flash Fiction that I publish on my blog. Then an event happened that brought me to where I am today—a children’s book author.
How I came to write a book about a boy on the autism spectrum is both a coincidence and an accident.
A coincidence leading to learning about autism
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a subject close to my heart. Long ago, when I started out reading psychology, I met a man at residential school who ignited a life-long curiosity about a certain condition I had no name for back then.
This man would garble on to nobody in particular or repeat the same question, not stopping for a response. He’d talk to me without eye contact; I never knew if he was addressing me or someone else. This man was one of the many psychology students at The Open University Psychology residential school—and he was smart! But nobody would sit with him at meal times which broke my heart. One day at dinner, I sat with him. After that day, William and I became friends. He would talk to me while looking at his fork. I learned more about psychology from him than the recommended textbooks I had to read. He liked custard, I remember, and would always ask for custard even at breakfast.
Many years later, I would come to meet a wonderful woman, Agnes, who taught me a lot about ASD. Her son, Chris, had autism but is very different from William. Chris is non-verbal with a rare genetic condition that also causes other health issues. Chris presents many symptoms associated to autism, like rocking and a sudden outburst of emotions when overstimulated.
By hanging out with Agnes, I began to understand how challenging it is to live with autism and to parent a child with autism. I learned and lived vicariously through her journeys. I also started doing research into ASD. How I respond to autism has been largely due to my own curiosity about people and life, and how we all cope in our own ways with what life throws at us. In finding solutions and helping others do the same, we contribute in little ways to helping make this world a better place for all, I feel.
A happy accident leading to a book
Open – A Boy’s Wayang Adventure is an adaptation of a film—The Wayang Kids—produced in Singapore. It is a collaboration with the film’s creator, Raymond Tan of Brainchild Pictures. When Raymond contacted me to write a story based on his film, I jumped at the opportunity because instinctively, I felt it is a book that I’ve been waiting to write. I’d met Raymond during the 2014 Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC). He was there to present his first film—The Wayang Boy—which I’d watched on the plane coming to Singapore. I told him that I really liked his film, and thus begun a friendship and partnership that led to the book.
In writing the book, I had to be conscious of representation. Individuals on the spectrum vary one from the other, and they are all individuals like neurotypical people, this I knew from personal experience and research. But because the character and narrator of the book is a personality taken from a film, my job as a writer became slightly easier. I based the conversations in the book on what is not said or heard in the film. I also based the character, Open, on all the things I’ve learned from friends who live with people with autism or parent them.
Why the book? I’ve come from the United Kingdom where there is a lot more awareness of autism. Similarly, in the United States, there are myriad support groups and a high level of awareness. Although there is some awareness in Singapore, there is still a need for more outreach. This is because schools in Singapore are organized differently from those in the United Kingdom and America. Schools are either mainstream or “special” here. This ensures that Singapore’s Ministry of Education can manage students’ access to the national curriculum which is considered very rigorous by international and local standards. Managing expectations is never a bad thing, I feel. However, it means that mainstream children would have little contact with someone on the spectrum at school.
From conversations with families parenting children with autism, I’ve come to learn that in a young society like Singapore’s, any psychological condition is considered a taboo. Since autism is viewed under such a label, parents with autistic children are often left without adequate support, although the situation has improved somewhat in recent years, with the internet and more parents seeking support from each other.
Raymond and I discussed how we could use both literature and the moving image to increase the level of awareness in the communities here. The movie came first, then the book which is a bridge to help audiences relate better to Benjamin Oh, the protagonist in The Wayang Kids, who is non-verbal.
In researching for this book, I’ve learned more about autism. In writing the book, I’m hoping to raise awareness through storytelling which helps connect young readers with real issues in their environments that they may not be aware of. In representing an Asian boy on the spectrum, I’m hoping that Asian boys with autism can identify themselves in Open and feel represented.
For full article, please visit: https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/understanding-autism-around-the-world/