Why I quit my job: From special needs educator to caregiver for my son on the autism spectrum
“The Samsung Galaxy A20 is the best, but it stopped running Android 11 and needs custom ROM,” uttered Ahmad Fathuzzaman Ahmad Asrorie, with the easy confidence of a seasoned sales staff.
But Ahmad Fathuzzaman, also called Afzam, was not selling anything. He was sitting at his dining table in his Sengkang home, explaining every technical detail of his collection of 15 smartphones and two tablets, many of them used or discarded by his family members. He is also only 10 years old.
“Most kids his age love going to playgrounds,” said Afzam’s father, Mr Ahmad Asrorie, 44. “But Afzam’s favourite places are Harvey Norman and Challenger.”
In true tech enthusiast fashion, he also reviews his electronic devices by filming videos.
“I will always need to check and edit his videos as I do not want him to accidentally leak any personal information in them,” said Mr Ahmad. “It is a concern as he is not shy around strangers and even picks up unknown calls.”
Afzam’s sociable nature can be surprising to many, as he is on the autism spectrum. But he has his own set of challenges, such as a lack of social awareness – of danger or being disruptive in class when he failed to follow teachers’ instructions during pre-school.
“My background in special needs education does not make caregiving easier. Previously, it was about passion. Now, it is about ensuring that everything works out for Afzam. Instead of passion, it is now pressure.”
AUTISM DOES NOT ALWAYS EQUAL ALOOF
Afzam was officially diagnosed with autism when he was 18 months old, but Mr Ahmad suspected that something was different as early as when he was just six months old.
“It seemed like he had some kind of learning disability and he did not understand why he had to do certain things,” he shared. “However, on the spectrum, he seems to require a little bit less support.”
Currently in his third year at AWWA School @ Napiri, a special education school, Afzam excels in interacting with his peers. He is always ready to lend his classmates a helping hand and will actively assist his friends with tasks that they are struggling with.
With family, Afzam is no different. “When we go out with his cousins and he sees one of them lagging behind, he will always go to them,” said Mr Ahmad.
He also regularly helps his grandparents with chores when he goes to their home after school daily – an arrangement that has made caring for Afzam currently more manageable for his parents.
But this support system is a far cry from what the family had four years ago.
CHANGING CAREER: A PAINFUL BUT NECESSARY DECISION
When Afzam was six and about to start school properly, his paternal grandparents fell ill and were no longer able to take care of him. His parents scrambled to find alternative care arrangements.
“We tried to get him a place in a special needs student care centre, but there was a limited number of them, and they were all filled up,” recalled Mr Ahmad.
Between him and his wife, they came to a decision that he would quit his job to care for Afzam. It was a practical decision: His wife earned more at her job in the pharmacy retail industry.
But it was also a tough call, as it meant giving up his career as a special needs educator at schools for over a decade. Yet, his job was also the reason that made him the perfect caregiver for Afzam.
“I soon realised that the years of experience I gained was all meant for Afzam,” he shared. “With my background, I knew how to communicate effectively with him and how to better schedule his days, which helped.”
He set up a daily routine for Afzam that provided predictability, as well as channelled his energies towards constructive hobbies like learning about electronics.
But no amount of experience could prepare him for how hard it was to be a caregiver. For two years, he went through a gruelling daily routine that saw his world turn upside down.
Working odd jobs at night, Mr Ahmad would return home only in the morning to take Afzam to school. These four hours of school were a brief respite, before focusing all his attention on Afzam when he came home. Then, he had a mere two to three hours of sleep before he had to work again.
“Honestly, I do not know how I survived. I wondered if leaving my job was the right decision,” said Mr Ahmad. “But I had to get my priorities straight and think of how I could best support my son.”
A CALL FOR GREATER SUPPORT
Thankfully, Afzam’s grandparents eventually recovered and took over the caregiving role. Mr Ahmad now has a full-time job as an operations executive at an education enrichment company with a STEM and ICT focus, but still spends time with his son.
“I recently introduced Afzam to online games like Minecraft Education Edition and Roblox, which we regularly play together,” he said. “I am also teaching him how to edit videos.”
He hopes for greater support for persons on the autism spectrum and their caregivers in Singapore. “I am lucky because I have experience as a special needs educator, but what about other parents who are clueless about autism?” noted Mr Ahmad.
“There also needs to be more after-school care centres for students with special needs, so that no other parent has to go through what I did.”