Latest TODAY column: Pencil marks on the wall
Our first-born Faith's autistic condition meant that we had to read special needs books instead of baby books, such as "What to expect in the first year".
By the time we were halfway through "What to expect in the first year", we realised we did not need to buy "What to expect in the second year".
Faith was just not following the book. There was no waving bye-bye, no "Mama", no "Papa".
Pencil marks on the wall
When we were very young, as soon as we could stand, my mother used to place us against the wall of our tiny two-bedroom HDB flat, and mark with a pencil, our heights.
Only mom had the right to draw on the walls, of course. Our attempts at expressing our wall drawing skills were usually met with canings (this was before the days of modern parenting magazines). You could say we suffered for our art.
Over time, that wall would fill with pencil lines accompanied with dates and heights, charting our growth until we grew so big, mom could not reach above us to mark the wall anymore.
My wife and I mark the milestones for our two children too, albeit not in the same way.
For the first two years of our lives as parents, we saw little, if not none, of the usual developmental milestones that a child would display. Our firstborn Faith’s autistic condition meant that we had to read special needs books instead of baby books like “What to Expect in the First Year”.
By the time we were halfway through “What to Expect in the First Year”, we realized that we did not need to buy “What to Expect in the Second Year”. Faith was just not following the book. There was no waving bye-bye, No “Mama”, no “Papa”.
If we were to mark Faith’s development as height markings on a wall, her pencil marks would be wide apart.
We have come to realize that her development would take a longer time, and more importantly, take a very different path. If anything, she has taught us the value of patience, the value of celebrating what most parents take for granted, and also to embrace differences.
One of the earliest things we had to teach her was to communicate her wants. We had to teach her to put her hand on her chest if she wanted something, and in response to our question (always asked in the same way), “You want?”.
When we hear parents boast of how many words their two-year-olds can recognise, via an intense regime of flash-card accelerated-learning methodologies supplemented by IQ-enhancing Mozart music, we just beam with pride that our daughter knows how to tell us she wants her milk or her toy. Now if only we can get her to tell us when she wants to go to the loo, that would save us a lot of money on diapers and wipes. One skill at a time, I suppose.
So you can imagine how excited we got when my dad told me about a recent day at KK Hospital, when she was there for an eye test, and Faith tapped Grandpa on the arm, pointed to her pink backpack, and tapped her chest.
She was hungry, and wanted to eat the biscuits in the Tupperware in her bag. What may seem like a normal thing to you is a huge leap for her.
Tapping was to initiate communication and get the attention of Grandpa.
Her pointing to the bag where the biscuit was in showed she understood the abstract concept that her box of biscuits were in the bag, even though she could not see it. She made the assumption it was in there because she used her past experiences as a guide, that her pink bag always carried her snack box.
The pointing was also a form of “joint attention”, where she was attempting to direct Grandpa’s attention to an object out of reach. Most kids learn this form of pointing by age one, Faith did it after she was about two.
And finally, her chest tap was her earliest communication skill, indicating “I want”.
Three gestures, but a multitude of concepts to grasp and string together.
Isaac, our 14-month-old, decided early on that whatever her sister is eating or playing with must be better than what he had in hand. So he frequently snatches stuff from her, which we discourage because we know Faith would not fight back.
So when she first cried after Isaac grabbed her stuff for the umpteenth time, we were extremely happy, because it meant that she understood three things: “this belongs to me”, “I acknowledge the existence of this other child” (her brother), and “I will express unhappiness at my loss”.
Stay tuned for “I need to give my brother a swift kick in the butt to stop him from taking my things.”
Her brother Isaac brought a whole other world to us. His rapid development we watch with relief. Each new skill he picks up is a sign to us that he would not be facing his sister’s obstacles.
Isaac makes eye contact, knows fear (he will not stand without a support), will cry if he falls down (even without pain, just to get attention), many of the things his sister will take longer to learn.
I often marvel at him, because in the space of half an hour, this 14-month-old baby can have an "argument" with granddad; refuse his dinner and insist on eating his sister's dinner from HER plate (no, not even her food on his plate will do); drop a poop job right next to the dining table where mom and dad are having their dinner; and crawl to the kitchen to open a cupboard and drag some plates on the floor, breaking one plate at his feet.
And he still doesn't know how to walk or talk yet.
We are constantly amused and amazed by their separate and different flight paths. It is not what we would have chosen ourselves, but the ride is an adventure nonetheless. My wife once wrote to a New Zealand lady who had a grandson with cerebral palsy:
“We have to keep believing in them and keep loving them to make them stronger, physically and mentally. Although we feel disheartened by what has happened to Faith, we feel that her existence has brought a bigger perspective and purpose in our lives.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
mr brown is the accidental author of a popular website that has been documenting the dysfunctional side of Singapore life since 1997. He is happy to have finally gotten a chance to vote. In Singapore Idol.