A mother’s teaching mantra: “Never cannot, but not yet”
Tucked in the corner of Ms Clara Toh’s living room is a peculiar piano keyboard. It does not only have the usual signature black and white keys, but also a handwritten alphabet letter on each of them denoting the musical note it plays.
Flip open the music books stacked nearby and you find mysterious numbers on the music scores, right under each note.
It is a method devised by Ms Toh, 53, and her son David’s piano teacher, to help the teenager with sight-reading. Instead of memorising musical notes and which key plays what, David follows the number sequence on the music sheet and plays the corresponding keys.
“Some pieces he can now play with both his left and right hands,” she declared proudly of her 18-year-old son who is on the moderate autism spectrum. Recently, he even participated in a pre-recorded piano recital on YouTube where he performed a 2-minute piece.
Ms Toh, a lawyer, actually cannot play the piano herself, having given up after just a few months of lessons as a teen. “It’s quite a struggle to convert the notes sometimes, but what to do, David likes the piano,” she said with a joking shrug.
David, who was diagnosed when he was three, does not speak much and has a limited vocabulary. He also had trouble moving steadily from one point to another when he was younger, due to weak core muscles and underdeveloped coordination skills. But that has never stopped Ms Toh from teaching him new things, even sports.
“The last thing I want is to put limitations on my child and tell him you can’t do it, mummy do it for you.”
BABY STEPS: BUT DON’T GIVE UP
Over the years, Ms Toh, who loves the outdoors, has exposed David to swimming, cycling, dragonboating and even paddle boarding.
Sports have been their way to bond, such as through fortnightly cycling trips around the nearby park, and also serve to expend David’s endless flow of energy. With the help of coaches and family friends, David has become proficient in many sports.
While some might argue that such skills are frivolous and that she should focus her efforts on more practical ones, she believes that building David’s repertoire of skills will make him more confident. “Everyone deserves to feel good about themselves,” she said.
Besides, save for some knocks and bruises, physical skills are relatively easy to teach. Social and life skills, right and wrong – now those are harder to sink in, shared Ms Toh. This is still something that she constantly grapples with.
As a child, David used to throw items out the window of their 21st-storey apartment, from toys to household items. Despite repeated reminders not to, he continued with his “experiments” as he wanted to know how things fall.
So, to prevent people from getting hurt, Ms Toh had to cover up the gaps in the window grills. Eventually she had to lock the rubbish chute too because he also started to throw things down from it, including an expensive two-month-old camera. It is also for this reason that the family currently lives on the first floor, though David has since outgrown this phase.
Now, as a teenager, David is still not quite attuned to social cues. For instance, if he accidentally steps on someone on public transport and gets shot angry glares, he might not notice and will not apologise until prompted or confronted.
But there have been successes. Once, David shattered his iPad mini but instead of chiding him, Ms Toh decided to set up a ‘Repair iPad Fund’, where he would do chores in exchange for $1 a day. After two months, she realised he was wiping the table and sweeping without being asked.
As David is an only child with no siblings to contend with, Ms Toh has been deliberate in ensuring that he considers the wants of others, such as at meals. Now, whenever he has taken his share of food and wants more, he will ask if anyone else wants it first.
He is also now more sensitive towards other people’s feelings instead of always wanting his way. “When he senses I’m upset, he will feed me something,” said Ms Toh with a chuckle.
SHIFTING GOALS: DON’T BE AFRAID TO ADJUST
While Ms Toh’s goal was for David to travel independently by the time he turned 12, he still requires supervision today. When using pedestrian crossings, he tends to follow the people ahead blindly without checking if the green man is still on. He also loses concentration easily and has gotten lost a few times.
But she believes he will eventually get there. Her attitude has always been not to rush things. Whenever she senses he is not ready, she would pause, wait for a few months, then go back to teaching him.
This was how she eventually potty-trained David, who used to tense up whenever he sat on the toilet bowl. Today, he still uses the “1, 2, break” cue to decide on how much toilet paper to tear.
Although she knows David is unlikely to respond to her in words, or perhaps just not yet, she continues to talk to him about her day and how she feels, and comments on his likes, dislikes and feelings. And she is always keen to introduce him to new experiences.
“If you don’t show, you don’t say, you don’t teach – there is zero chance of success. I may try over and over again, maybe the absorption rate is very low compared to a neurotypical child, but it doesn’t matter, I got to try. Something probably goes through,” said Ms Toh.