From fear to confidence – how the right environment helped a person on the autism spectrum soar
For nearly six months, Elliot Chia hunted and waited. In his search for full-time work as an animator, he had sent over 20 job applications that led to just four interviews.
“Either my portfolio was inadequate or I didn’t stand out during interviews,” he shared matter-of-factly.
Finally, he managed to land a job at a digital animation studio for three months. “It’s a start,” said Elliot, 26, who graduated from Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Animation.
For many, this long job search can be dispiriting. For the soft-spoken Elliot, there’s an added insecurity.
“I felt bad about possibly being overlooked in favour of more charismatic and knowledgeable people who are better at advocating for themselves,” he said. He wondered if employers were shunning him because he is on the spectrum.
So when he received his first job offer, he was elated – that he was appreciated for who he is and his talent. He opened up to his supervisor, sharing that he has autism and requires “very specific instructions and frequent clarifications” to produce the best work.
“He was willing to accommodate me,” he disclosed with a shy smile.
“I’m grateful, but I still want to do more. These are stepping stones to what I want to do in life. It’s good to have gone so far already.”
DRAWING INSPIRATION: “I WANTED TO BRING MY IDEAS TO LIFE”
His talent is clear. From drawing to designing to animating, Elliot’s masterpieces can be viewed on ArtStation, an online portfolio portal.
There are vivid illustrations of Japanese anime characters, intricate sketches of pandas and manatees inspired by Singapore’s River Wonders, and technical demonstrations of rigging – an animation process that allows characters to move.
His digital magic and imaginative touch has even transformed Nintendo’s iconic Mario from pudgy plumber to rugged Rambo – with some tweaks to hairstyle and attire. “I can even make him run too,” he grinned, playing a short clip of his 3D crossover creation sprinting at full speed.
Creating animated characters is his childhood dream come true, as he was mesmerised by Pokémon and Gundam. “Watching all these different shows made me want to do my own shows. I wanted to bring my ideas to life,” he said.
While cartoons sparked his creativity and career, his current achievements have not come easy.
A DAILY DREAD: “JUST BEING AWAKE WAS TIRING”
As a person on the autism spectrum with lower support needs, Elliot has had to deal with social difficulties such as communicating and echolalia – where he randomly repeated words from previously watched videos when he was much younger.
Recounting the past, he shared how he used to feel trapped in fear during his days at a mainstream primary school. Having been diagnosed with autism at age six, his limitations in communicating often meant trouble.
“Sometimes I didn’t know I was doing the wrong thing or was being socially inappropriate. So I got scolded a lot,” he recalled.
There was an instance where he was headed for the counsellor’s office, which was located in a restricted zone for students. But when a teacher asked what he was doing there, he could not give a proper answer. The misunderstanding resulted in punishment – he was forced to sit in a corner for an entire recess.
The frequent scolding, which happened every month, eventually took a toll. “I was getting sadder and sadder. I didn’t enjoy learning,” he said. “I was just too sad to comprehend what the teachers were saying. I wanted the day to be over – just being awake was tiring.”
GETTING A DEGREE: “MY GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT”
A lifeline came in a transfer to Pathlight School, which brought instant liberation. “I definitely felt more relaxed,” he said. “If I did something wrong, I would be corrected, not scolded.”
Being at ease also helped his fledgling artistic flair to shine. He joined the school’s Artist Development Programme, working with professional artists to develop his talent. From there, he blossomed, eventually pursuing a Diploma in (Digital) Animation at a local polytechnic.
This time, the lessons learnt from Pathlight helped him adjust better in a mainstream school. He was more conscious of his actions. Finding something he was good at and making friends bolstered his confidence too.
He kept on progressing. In 2017, he entered university – but with mixed feelings of excitement and anxiety as it was a big challenge.
“I tried to be more independent and not use my autism as an excuse for anything,” he explained. “I wanted to improve my behaviour and work ethic.”
Although he still found it tough to talk to people, he mustered the courage to approach teachers about work. Like in polytechnic, a close circle of friends helped him adapt to university life. He graduated in 2021, a moment he describes as his “greatest achievement”.
CONVERSATION CHALLENGE: “JUST TRY”
After conquering school and getting a job, Elliot is now facing his next greatest challenge: communicating effectively in the working world.
While he has excelled in his individual pursuits, he is finding it a little harder to be part of a team or joining group conversations. But he is taking action. “I just don’t think too much about it and just try,” he explained.
It is working. In the first week at his new job, he managed to hold a conversation with a pair of colleagues. “It wasn’t a very long conversation but it was still good in my opinion,” he said.
As with all his previous challenges, he will eventually prevail. He always has.