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A bright and sunny Saturday morning gave a warm welcome to a group of paddlers at Sentosa’s Siloso Beach. Equipped with Stand Up Paddle (SUP) boards and paddles, they entered the waters and waded until they were almost waist deep.
The paddlers got on their boards and got ready before heading out to sea. They were a colorful bunch and were certainly no ordinary sportsmen. They were in fact children and adolescents who shared a similar disability: autism.
Autism is a developmental condition that affects a person’s perspective on the world around them. It has varying degrees of severity, meaning that no two people are affected the same. Autism is, unfortunately, a lifelong condition and there is currently no known cure.
And that’s where Choo and Project Ocean Therapy (POT) come in.
Launched in 2018, the POT targets children and young people with autism and their family members. The program is run by Choo’s team from Grace Mission – a center for autism and special needs – and is supported by SUP Ventures Singapore, a paddling club in Sentosa, and a few volunteers.
As Choo explains, POT members strive to create an environment where these autistic children and youth can be nurtured to their full potential. Every Saturday, the youngest connect to water sports and nature.
Parents as Guardians
Stephanie Lee is the mother of Jonas Teo, a 19 year old with autism with low support needs. Teo struggles to make friends and manage relationships with others.
Like many other autistic people, Teo often focuses on topics that interest him. For example, Lee mentioned that Teo will listen to the same song over and over for a long time and won’t get bored. He also expresses his displeasure in meltdowns when things don’t go his way.
Prior to POT, Teo participated in a similar program at a local hydroponic farm. But back then, he was much more unstable, and his mother constantly worried about how things might go wrong when it came to his behavior.
Lee told us that his heart beat every time she sent him to the farm.
“Some days we are very worried and he can go over there and throw a whole bunch of vegetables on the table… The heart is still beating. Will I still get a call to pick him up early? “
Today, Teo is less volatile partly because he switched to a new drug in August 2019, but that’s not all.
As a carer of an autistic teenager, Lee would tell you that having the right medication is only part of the support process. Another is to keep young people engaged in the community through meaningful activities like stand-up paddling.
This is where POT comes in. Teo’s father, Teo Su Ming, is an avid water sports enthusiast, often diving or snorkeling when he gets the chance.
For Su Ming, POT is a great bonding activity for him and his son. Young Teo also had the opportunity to make new friends with those involved in the program, including the volunteers present. It widened his social circle and therefore became a meaningful activity for him.
The same but different
Lim Wei Ping is co-organizer of POT and parent of Hong Yang Chong, a 19-year-old autistic boy with high support needs. Chong has limited verbal communication skills and faces challenges in performing tasks that require fine motor skills. His neurological age is similar to that of a 4-year-old child, requiring a caregiver 24/7. Lim and her husband take care of Chong’s needs, such as showering and using the toilet.
When Choo pitched her idea on POT, Lim was eager to join her family. However, she had some reservations in her mind about the SUP activity as she felt it was more suitable for people with low support needs. Still, she was open to her child trying something unconventional.
“I was excited because it’s something different. Because outside, when our partners offer us activities, sometimes it’s the same thing, something conventional that I think anyone who else can do. It was really something very different… So I said ‘Okay, let’s do it!’” Lim explained.
She added that the first session was interesting. There were those who could present themselves to the council at the end of the session. But it was a little more difficult for others, like Chong.
Some were afraid to jump into the water. Others struggled to get on their board. Some were just distracted by their fixations, like repetitively scooping up water.
Chong only managed to run for the board after seven months. Although it seemed like a minor feat, it was actually a big achievement for him and his family, considering they had no expectations when he first joined the program.
Lim said with a smile:
“He finally stood at seven months and we were like ‘Wow!’ It was like seeing these baby giraffes when they were born, trying to get up and down. Then that moment when they got up, they started walking…everyone was amazed.”
From then on, it wasn’t long before Chong was able to balance himself on his own board.
Slowly, Chong learned to balance himself on the board and was guided by POT’s various instructors – teaching him different techniques along the way.
An environment conducive to growth
The POT sessions allowed the parents to bond and become a tightly knit support system. In difficult times, they can confide since these parents have had similar experiences.
“Sometimes some things are very personal and you don’t want to spread them. But here it’s a closer group, like Wei Ping and other parents,” Lee explained. “We also share some similarities and it’s also easier for parents to bond.”
For the 10 children and young people with autism who are currently actively enrolled in POT, it is clear that the program provides a welcoming and supportive environment in which to grow and benefit.
The patience and attentiveness of instructors and volunteers have been essential in helping people with autism improve. Those with few support needs can make new friends.
Teo became well acquainted with the instructors and volunteers there. He became particularly close to a volunteer, Niki.
She asked for Lee’s permission to befriend Teo and they both exchanged contacts. Soon after, they become friends and often call each other on the phone.
Their friendship evolved into playing multiple rounds of UNO online. However, Niki had to return to the UK to work. This didn’t dampen Teo’s spirit as by then he was already good friends with the others as well.
POT is also a platform where people with autism can train physically, and in particular develop their fine motor skills. Chong, developed a marked improvement in his physique and strength.
Lee mentioned that Chong was also taking basketball lessons. Previously, he was unable to throw the ball through the hoop. Now he is able to launch himself from a distance.
“When he throws (the ball) to me, I can feel the vibration through me when I catch it. So you definitely see those improvements (with SUP) translating into other parts of his life,” said Lee.
SUP21km Autism Awareness Month
Next Saturday, Choo and its partners will organize SUP21km on April 30, 2022 to raise funds to support programs and raise awareness of autism among the general public.
The 21km paddle was inspired by Wei Ping’s son.
He started out with no experience, but is now able to paddle about 5 km per week. Choo, family members and those of SUP Ventures will paddle 21 kilometers. Children and young people with autism will join them for the last 5 kilometers of the event.
Although registrations for SUP21km are currently closed, those interested in joining POT can contact Choo via Facebook, or his colleague Willy on Instagram. You can also follow POT developments here.
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Quotes have been edited for clarity and grammar.
Top photo by Clare Yak (taken before the Covid-19 pandemic)