Reviews / November 2012 (Issue 19)

A Tale of Unsung Heroes and Obstinate Bureaucrats: Aqilah Teo's Ordinary Stories in an Extraordinary

by Carolyn Lau


Aqilah Teo, Ordinary Stories In An Extraordinary World, Ethos Books, 2012. 184 pgs.

The mere mention of the word "autism" draws polarised impressions. An autistic individual can be one who bangs his head on the wall repeatedly in great frustration till his face reddens and bruises bloom. He can also be hailed as a silent genius, who can sketch the skyline of New York after a brief glance from a helicopter window. Autistic individuals are often sensationalised by a media ready to transform personal struggles and hardships into stories that fill the public's voyeuristic appetite.

Fortunately, Aqilah Teo's Ordinary Stories In An Extraordinary World offers a much-needed corrective. In its honest and genuine account of autism and Singaporean society's response to it, this slim but informative volume counters overtly dramatised and emotionally exploitative accounts that distort the public's impression of autistic individuals. Teo's book offers an autobiographical account of how her family and members of the community intersect with the life of Jan, her autistic younger brother.

Teo's portrait of her brother reveals the complexity of an autistic child. We learn, for example, that when Jan graduated from special needs school at the age of twelve, he suffered from depression and melancholia as he was cut off from his peers. He started to grab objects within reach, ranging from ketchup bottles to cutlery, and throw them out of the window. Teo's family began to keep all sharp and potentially dangerous items locked away safely or hidden from sight, a strategy which ultimately failed as Jan insistently and cleverly ferreted out desired objects from even the most obscure places, a fact which both puzzled and surprised his family.

This anecdote sheds light on questions of whether autistic individuals, who often have low attention spans and encounter difficulties concentrating, are less capable than others at learning and problem solving. Teo's account of Jan's hobby of typing simple sentences on his new-found toy, the computer, shows how an autistic child "understands the notion of causality" and is "conscious of the idea that things occur in sequence." This undermines the general tendency to equate autism with a haphazard mental state that renders individuals incapable of expressing themselves in a coherent and logical manner.

Yet, Jan's intelligence coexists with sheer strength and a potential for moments of emotional turmoil. In the chapter "The policemen were blue, doctors were white," Teo heartrendingly recalls the time when Jan ran away at midnight one weekend, and no relatives or friends were able to help her family find him. Despite suffering from the after-effects of a fever, Teo went in search of her brother, retracing the paths Jan usually took through the neighbourhood. When her brother finally reappeared, with the help of kind and alert taxi driver who noted his unusual behaviour and drove him promptly to a police station, the boy sprawled himself on the ground and refused to budge, no matter how hard the policemen tried to lift him.

Teo relates another occasion when Jan fell ill and refused to leave the house to be treated at the hospital. The comic scenario of the medical team of four trying to carry Jan to the ambulance when faced with the stony stillness of his reluctance, is, as Teo puts it, straight of a Charlie Chaplin slapstick sequence. It is in moments like this, when Teo humorously muses on a thorny situation, that she reveals her family's brimming optimism and uncompromising love for Jan. It is their full embrace of their youngest family member, regardless of others' indifference and strange looks, that allows them to make the best of difficult moments. Instead of descending into the morose self-pity common among many autobiographical accounts, Teo's light-hearted and slightly offbeat humour, occasionally tinged with bitter traces of helplessness in difficult times, pervades this heartfelt and multifaceted study of autism.

Most important of all, Teo's perceptive portrayal of different attitudes towards autism in Singaporean society adds a layer of social criticism to her chronicle. In a telling chapter, "How one is declared unfit for duty, "the Singaporean army's National Service system is scoffed at and ridiculed by Teo' needle-like humour. A dialogue between her and army personnel exposes the bureaucracy's scant knowledge and understanding of special needs citizens. We learn that the army simplistically classifies autism as a type of illness and sees it as a disease or contamination. To the establishment, then, an autistic individual is to be treated in the same manner as flu patient, who will recover with a few pills and injections. Indeed, Teo goes even further by opposing the "treatment" of autism altogether, arguing that the condition is inherent to Jan's character, and that eradicating it would mean fundamentally altering his identity and forcing him to become a completely different person.

Apart from the oblivion of the bureaucrats, Teo also targets public intolerance towards special needs children. At one point, Jan and his mother meet with the hostility of shopkeepers, who refuse vehemently to open their small provisions store a few minutes early, even after Jan "threw himself on the ground and cried and shrieked … till he turned a little blue." Teo does, however, offer praise and gratitude to the strangers who just happened to be passing by and who spoke out on behalf of her mother and brother against the shopkeepers' intolerance and lack of consideration.

For Teo "the proof that not all our countrymen and women are cold, standoffish and unhelpful as [they] are often portrayed" not only includes kindly passers-by but also many uncelebrated heroes, who dedicate their lives to the needs of autistic individuals and to fighting discrimination.

Moving away from the illuminating personal account of the interaction between an autistic child and his family, the last few chapters of Ordinary Stories turn to the public aspects of the struggle to gain equality and respect for autistic children and adolescents. In one section, Teo pays a visit to the Rainbow School, an institution for students with special needs led by Ms. Fauziah Ahmad, who was also Jan's principal at his previous school. Ms. Ahmad is the paragon of the special needs educator, a selfless headmistress unafraid of challenges posed by the cool reception of the media and general public towards efforts to integrate special needs children in the community. She cites the example of the underreporting of participation by special needs children in the Youth Olympic Games in 2012 to argue that such children are still not being properly recognised or treated as equal to mainstream students.

Teo praises the Rainbow School for its efforts and suggests that it is poised to become the model of the progressive special needs school in the city. With its balanced curriculum of academic training and extracurricular activities, the school hopes to offer special needs children opportunities to explore and express themselves just like any other schoolchildren. "Community mobility activities" such as having swimming classes in public swimming pools instead of the one inside the school encourage the general public and the children to interact, so that the students can build self-confidence and independence in a communal setting.

Although a medical autism expert who Teo interviews expresses concerns about the sluggish progress of the Singaporean government in providing higher education and equal job opportunities for autistic adolescents and adults, the book ends on a hopeful note. Teo focuses on the Eden school, which even though it is the one and only educational institution for autistic youths in the country, strives to provide comprehensive vocational training and further education for special needs adolescents, so that they can be as competitive as other members of their age group.

The establishment of an Education Village in Singapore, where a mainstream primary and secondary school and a special school are housed together like the one in Darlington, England, may not be immediately foreseeable. One thing that is for certain though is that with the perseverance of enlightened educators and the generosity of the public, this vision of harmony and equality hovering just beyond the horizon is becoming more vivid day by day.

Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.