These parents looked for outdoor activities and a community for their special needs children – and found support for themselves
Outdoor activities can help special needs children with certain life skills, say parents. CNA joins a parents support group and their children on a weekend hike.
SINGAPORE: As a mother of a special needs child, Nadia (not her real name) has to grapple with “playground politics”.
Her 12-year-old son is autistic – and his behaviour often evokes stares from other children at the playground.
“Kids being kids, they will stare … Contrary to what others think, our (special needs) kids are more sensitive to other people. They’re not unaware; they’re hyper-aware,” said the 40-year-old homemaker who quit her job to care for her son.
“When people talk about them or look at them differently, it becomes a stress point for them. Then it becomes stress for us parents. So it’s important that there is a place where they can be themselves. It’s like what any other person would want.”
For Nadia, this place is often nestled among trees, such as on a hiking trail with a group of parents and their special needs children.
Having relocated to Singapore from India in 2015 with her family, she considers herself a relatively new member of the small and tight-knit parents' support group, which has been around for years.
She used to attend the occasional hike with them, but now tries to show up regularly with her son for the group’s hiking expeditions on a weekend or public holiday.
Going on these hikes is important for two reasons: First, it gives her son the chance to take part in "forest bathing" – the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or simply spending time in nature – which is said to boost well-being.
Second, it gives her access to a community of local parents with similar struggles in raising special needs children – an avenue of support she lacked when she first arrived in Singapore.
HIKING TO IMPROVE THEIR CONDITION
Incidentally, the same parents' support group opened their arms to a mother with two autistic sons who penned a Facebook post in the Singapore Hikers Facebook group in June.
The post, which garnered an overwhelming amount of support, was a request for a hiking group to allow the mother and her sons to tag along, as well as volunteers to help her during the hike.
“Bringing my boys will slow down the group hiking pace. Also when my boys could not follow instruction, (we) would turn back and go home,” she wrote.
In July, CNA accompanied this mother (who declined to be named), Nadia and her son, and four more families and their special needs children to trek Mount Faber. The children, a mix of individuals with autism and Down Syndrome, ranged from 12 years old to their mid-20s.
The hike, which was put together by another parent Howard Yap, wasn’t the group’s first time on the trails. In fact, the 59-year-old business owner first started organising such activities for these parents and their special needs children about six years ago.
As one of the main caregivers for his 26-year-old son who has Down Syndrome, Mr Yap also organises dragonboating on alternate weekends. And every weekend, at least 10 people show up for the outdoor activity, he said.
“For special needs kids, it’s not easy to find activities. There are a few organisations that do it, like (local inclusive running club) Runninghour, but it’s on an irregular basis,” he shared.
“I wanted it to be more regular, every week. When you do the activities more regularly, you can see an improvement in the child.”
As those with Down Syndrome tend to move slower and their coordination is “not as good as others”, Mr Yap said he wanted to create activities that could help children like his son improve their coordination and make their minds more alert.
He wants them to challenge themselves despite their condition.
“I want them to go on more challenging routes rather than just a normal route. Anyone can do it. (Otherwise,) they can’t learn teamwork, coordination, balancing, how to pull, how to use strength,” he said.
“I find a lot of professionals write about the benefits of outdoor activities that involve nature. We don’t have statistics but we can do it and see it for ourselves. From our own experience, (our son) really has improved.”
During the hike with CNA, Mr Yap’s son was the group’s cheerleader, motivating the other special needs children and even their parents to push on.
A fellow caregiver and parent to a child with Down Syndrome, 59-year-old Monica Kan, agreed that her 25-year-old son has become “more open” since being exposed to hiking.
Her husband, Wilson Tan, shared that their son used to back away when he faced challenges that he perceived to be dangerous.
“A few times, we have to go back while the rest just carry on moving forward. After some time, while we wait for him, then we can move. … Because he will take a longer time to decide whether to move,” the 63-year-old father said.
“Initially, he will crouch down, he’s very shy. Now he’s more willing to look at people. He usually doesn’t talk to people at all, and his vocabulary is very (limited). But we saw an improvement after trekking,” added Mdm Kan.
“There were so many times when he’d walk into a place for trekking, and it was muddy or wet. He would refuse to move, so we’d go home. But my husband and (Mr Yap) waited until he’s ready to move. Now he can climb up a mountain with a rope. It might be nothing, but to us, it’s a lot of improvement.”
Nonetheless, Mdm Kan acknowledged there are challenges in hiking with special needs children, such as handling their behaviours that might be unknown to other parents or volunteers in the group.
She recalled an autistic boy who loved water.
“The moment we walked across a bridge (from a previous hike), he jumped into the (pond). The mother knows, but we don’t. We were all shocked. But the mother came around, and told us to just let the boy cool down,” she said.
“Certain kids don’t like touching too. So there are certain behaviours from their children that parents should inform (other) caregivers.”
FINDING LIKEMINDED COMMUNITY IS CRUCIAL
While activities like hiking help their special needs children, the parents also benefit from meeting others on the same journey.
The initial phases of the caregiving journey were no walk in the park for Mdm Kan, who quit her job around nine years ago when she was 50. She had to manage her expectations, not having been her son’s main caregiver for many years.
“When I had my son with Down Syndrome, I didn’t cry. I never thought it was a challenge, just to go and do the best I can. But after I retired, I realised the bonding was missing. Even though we bond, the focus I could have given him from being a full-time caregiver was not there,” she said.
“That’s when I broke down. I didn’t know I would have so many problems until we could not understand each other.”
As such, finding support groups like Mr Yap’s encouraged Mdm Kan. She sees her son’s friends as “buddies” and their parents as “kakis” (Malay for "buddy").
They “play games together, have fun together and cry together”, she said. “We really have a hard time struggling, but we understand each other.”
Finding a community of her own also taught Mdm Kan how to better help her son.
“I first learnt from a volunteer when we had to take food for our children. The volunteer told us (parents) not to help or meddle with anything. That’s when I learnt that they’re trying to train (our children) to be independent, whereas we as parents have been helping them all along,” she explained.
“When we try to teach our own kids, they tend not to listen. But if there are other people, like a coach or team leader, then they tend to follow and listen. It’s sometimes easier for our children to be trained by a coach rather than the parents. They will take advantage of their parents; they will throw a tantrum.”
Mdm Kan added that such support groups for parents don’t have to stem from “official organisations” like charities and churches. In fact, many that “spring up on their own” are spread via word-of-mouth, and their only platform of communication is a WhatsApp group chat.
And as an expat, Nadia’s first exposure to these support groups comprising local parents about three to four years ago was key to belonging. Her son had been homeschooled until then.
“Once I started interacting with Singaporean parents, you realise they’re so willing to help you and include you in everything. And that becomes a community,” she said.
“I don’t know if any doctor would help me as much as any other parent would. I’d trust a parent more than a doctor. The parents have given me hope. They’ve included my child; they tell me what works and what doesn’t work.”
For parents just beginning to care for a special needs child, Nadia advised that they “take a breath first” after their child’s diagnosis.
“Look for other parents who have been in your shoes; parents of slightly older kids who have been on the same journey. Look on social media. Once you put forward your hands, you will get a lot of help. But you have to extend your hand, and there will be many hands to pull you up,” she said.
Mdm Kan and her husband, Mr Tan, only have one piece of advice for those who wish to help these parents: “Go for these activities to observe.”
“I heard of a parent whose daughter had a meltdown in the open street. People didn’t help her, they just stared at her. It would be good if they just came forward and asked what help she needed, even helping her to hold something so she can manage her kid. That would actually do a lot,” she said.
“It’s good that (volunteers) can expose themselves to know more about special needs, so they won’t be afraid and not know what to do,” added Mr Tan.
Similarly, Nadia hopes that parents can educate their children to be kind to their peers with special needs.
“If you have children and friends with special needs children, it will go a long way by including them in a playdate. Teach kids to be kind. These (special needs) kids are starved for love and acceptance from their peers,” she said.
ALLOWING KIDS – AND PARENTS – TO BE THEMSELVES
Once Nadia found that love and acceptance among local parents, the tide turned.
While her son once had no stamina to walk and would have a meltdown wherever they went, he could now bound ahead of his mother on the hike up Mount Faber with Mr Yap’s group.
Hiking particularly appeals to her son because he is “extra sensitive to noises, pollution and excessive lights”, she said.
“The one place in today’s world that is free of all that is nature. Nature is calming for all of us, but for (kids with autism), they’re more sensitive to other frequencies. Like for my own son, if there are low-frequency noises, like the roar of traffic, he gets very disturbed,” she explained.
“Nature is calming because they don’t get to hear all that. We need to listen to (our children) to maintain our own health. In a way, they have become our teachers.”
Nadia admitted that taking her son on these hikes with fellow parents and their special needs children also means she doesn't feel compelled to keep “correcting” his behaviour.
“What I’ve noticed is that neurotypical kids are given an allowance to have a tantrum outside. But when our kids do it, they’re more scrutinised for whatever reason. We don’t allow them even once; it’s like zero, there’s no grey shade. It becomes stressful for everyone,” she said.
“We don’t give them a life like children sometimes. We push them to do everything to become normal, so what happens is we overwork them. Hikes give my son a break from being under the lens all the time.”
On these hikes, Nadia’s son is free to be himself. And when he is free, so is she.