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She didn't know she was autistic until she was 42. It changed her life

Discovering she was autistic was the "beginning of selfhood" for one winner of the Goh Chok Tong Enable Awards in 2021, which celebrates the achievements of people with disabilities.

She didn't know she was autistic until she was 42. It changed her life

Dr Dawn-joy Leong, a researcher and multi-artist, was diagnosed with autism at the age of 42. (Photo: Mediacorp)

SINGAPORE: At 56, researcher and artist Dr Dawn-joy Leong has amassed a wealth of accolades, from academic awards to recognition for her artistic endeavours.

Just last year, she bagged a top prize at the Goh Chok Tong Enable Awards, celebrating the achievements of people with disabilities.

But she points out: Her career only properly began not too long ago – after a life-changing diagnosis at 42 revealed that she had autism.

“I'm a late achiever because I only started to do anything from the time I was diagnosed. If you look at my CV, it doesn't begin from my graduation (in 1989) … I did nothing,” joked Dr Leong.

“It was only after my diagnosis that I really seriously got to do all the things I loved to do, I wanted to do.”

GETTING DIAGNOSED AT 42

Dr Leong was diagnosed with autism in 2007, after a series of stressful events triggered suicidal thoughts in her.

Apart from the pressure and isolation of pursuing her master's in Hong Kong, her father was dying, her family was “basically breaking up” and her friends were not around, she said.

“There was one night, I remember very clearly … I found myself just at (the bedroom window) ledge staring at the moon, with this strange compelling (thought): Just jump.”

She sought professional help, and after a few sessions and tests, her psychologist told her she was autistic.

With this revelation came a flood of relief that she “wasn’t somehow impaired or bad”, she said, adding that it helped her understand some difficulties in her past.

For instance, teaching pre-school had been "horrible" because of the constant "sensory bombardment" that left her exhausted every day. This was on top of having to manage an auto-immune disease, Behcet's syndrome.

“It came as: ‘Wow. It's great, I’m not a bad, anti-social, nasty person for not wanting to go into a crowded, noisy room.’”

NEW SENSE OF IDENTITY

The diagnosis marked “the beginning of selfhood”, said Dr Leong.

It gave her a new sense of identity and purpose, which she channelled towards her lifelong passion for academia and art.

She went on to get a PhD relating to autism and art in Australia in 2016, for which she was conferred a dean’s award.

In 2019, she became the first and only Singaporean autistic researcher to be invited to sit on committees of the Asia Pacific Autism Conference.

The year after, she became the first autistic artist in Singapore to be commissioned by a major arts institution, the National Gallery Singapore, to hold a solo exhibition.

In 2021, she landed a prestigious prize at the Goh Chok Tong Enable Awards for having made significant achievements in her field.

Despite all this, she maintains that her greatest achievement is having the courage to cut off “toxic” relationships in her life.

This included relationships with certain family members who felt she needed to be "closeted" because of her quirks, along with some relatives and friends who she said manipulated her because of her autism.

“(Leaving that situation) meant that I had to let go of my friends, part of family and privilege. So it came to a point where I'd rather be me, than to be a well-kept pet in a golden cage.

“And so that was my greatest moment. … From then on, I never looked back.”

SENDING A MESSAGE TO SOCIETY

On winning multiple awards, Dr Leong said: "This so-called worldly success was never my goal and it still feels very strange to me ... I just look at (my projects) as something that an inner compulsion made me do."

But she hopes that her winning a prize at the Goh Chok Tong Enable Awards will send a message to society. “(I hope it shows) it's possible for people who are disabled, in some way or other, to thrive, to find themselves.

“I hope that my winning this award speaks to others that it's possible to achieve your dreams, with a lot of help from others."

At the same time, she emphasised another message: That people are worthy, regardless of whether they win an award or not.

NOMINATIONS OPEN FOR AWARDS

Nominations for the fourth edition of the Goh Chok Tong Enable Awards (GCTEA) will be accepted until Jul 15.

The GCTEA (UBS Achievement), which Dr Leong won, celebrates people with disabilities who have made significant achievements in their fields, and who serve as an inspiration to others.

Another award category, the GCTEA (UBS Promise), is for those with disabilities who have "shown promise to pursue greater heights in their areas of talent".

The awards are an initiative by the Mediacorp Enable Fund, which aims to help build a society where people with disabilities are recognised for their abilities and lead full, socially integrated lives. The fund is administered by SG Enable, with Mediacorp as its official media partner. Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong is the patron of the fund. To support persons with disabilities through the MEF, please visit mef.sg.

Winners of this year’s GCTEA will be announced in December.

Source: CNA/cl

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