Selina Gomez quit her job to become the caretaker of her young son, Ivan, when he was diagnosed with autism. Today, Ivan is 16. “Autism is what our son has, not who our son is,” says Gomez.

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“My 16-year-old son, Ivan, is artistic and athletic. He’s fun and loving, and is passionate about art, animals and food. He brings joy to everyone he meets, and sets goals to accomplish. He’s compassionate and always there to give you a hug when you are down.

Ivan also has autism.

When he was a baby, he was rather quiet, but nothing stood out. Around the time he turned 2, we found him to be rather too quiet. He would sit in front of the TV watching Barney, and not respond to us when we came home from work. He would not seem to notice, even when we had visitors. He would seem to be in a daze most of the time, not wanting to communicate with anyone.

The lack of eye contact was our first sign that Ivan may have had autism — then came the lack of speech. Ivan only started speaking at the age of 5 and he still has difficult expressing himself verbally, or relating events that upset him.

Ivan has sensory issues and it was extremely challenging when he was younger. I had to evaluate every situation before bringing him into it — whether it was going to the grocery store, to church, to a party, or to the playground, we were kept on our toes. Every minute was a challenge and I was like a 24/7 surveillance centre.

Every minute was a challenge and I was like a 24/7 surveillance centre.”

He went through many phases during his childhood. Sometimes, sleep wasn’t on his agenda. He would go on for weeks, without having a proper amount of sleep at night. Those nights really drained me as my husband worked overseas and I was alone. Should I doze off in the afternoons as he played, I would occasionally wake to find him playing with items that could have been dangerous if misused. I still wonder how I survived those days.

We used to take the train from Clementi to Sembawang for his Early Intervention Programme for Infants and Children (EIPIC) twice a week. He knows the sequence of the train stations by heart. Once, his dad took him the KFC at Woodlands, after that, every time we passed Woodlands, we had to alight to get chicken nuggets for him — he would cry and throw a fit if we did not.

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One day, while approaching Woodlands station, I decided it was ‘game on’. He started to cry and we alighted. But we sat at the bench and did not leave the station. He cried and threw a tantrum. Three trains passed us by. I told him clearly that we were not going to KFC that day, but he could quiet down and we could go home for some water play.

Five more trains passed and finally, he gave up. From that day on, he realised that he had choices. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do — everyone gave me dirty looks while he was crying. But in my mind, I thought, ‘You are not coming home with me to look after him, so judge me all you want. I only care that I can get through to my boy.’

“You are not coming home with me to look after him, so judge me all you want. I only care that I can get through to my boy.”

I often hear comments that my son is very naughty, or that I was not being a good mum. Once, when Ivan was 5, we had an encounter with an elderly lady on the train. Ivan likes to kneel on the chair to look out of the train window. As he was doing this, he accidentally brushed his leg against this lady. She stared at him and mumbled something. I apologised to her. It happened again, and I apologised again, even more sincerely this time. But she kept mumbling and grumbling, and it was clear that she was complaining about Ivan.

I snapped and told her that he was a child, and it was just a brush of his feet. She decided to look away and ignore me. What can I say? Every mum is protective of her cubs. I don’t have a formula to deal with all this, but I have learnt that it is just not humanly possible work 24/7. I prayed for sanity, safety and strength and took things a day at a time.

Back then, things were different — we could not just Google our problems. The first time I heard the word "autism", I was shocked and lost when I received the diagnosis from KKH. I was worried. I had never heard of it before. But I immediately hit the library to get as much information as I could. In time, I came to understand more about it, but I still do as much research as I can — I don’t think I will ever stop…”

All those years ago, when I started this journey with Ivan, I quit my job as a principal of a childcare centre to become his main caregiver. I also did my diploma in special education, and started our own inclusion playgroup that’s based in Bishan. Ivan showed me a whole new world, how to stop and smell the roses.

One afternoon, as I was recovering from a fever, Ivan was playing with some toys next to me as I rested on my bed. Then, I noticed a little hand resting on my forehead, followed by a kiss. I opened my eyes to see that it was Ivan, smiling down on me. This gesture was something I used to do to him, when he was unwell. He didn’t say a word, but I felt the love.

He didn’t say a word, but I felt the love.”

Ivan has attended many schools over the years. His last school was St Andrew’s Autism School and he is now in Mountbatten Vocational School. His current school does not cater primarily to kids like him, but he is coping well. Ivan is an introvert but he loves school, and he has friends, too.

He is a big fan of Disney animated classics and they are often the subjects of his drawings. In fact, he has received various trophies for his art, and Laselle College of the Arts featured his works at an exhibition a few years ago. Ivan is also assistant coach to his dad who conducts physical training for kids with special needs. He is often hot on the heels of the other kids, spurring them on to ‘run faster’!

We recently learnt that Ivan’s younger brother, Joshua, 3, has autism as well. I started working with him the moment I noticed something different. He has started off with our inclusion playgroup and he now attends the Autism Resource Centre or EIPIC.

I encourage my boys to live to their best potential and that it’s okay to fail. With support from us, they know that we always have their backs in life.”

Ivan was recently featured in this year’s See the True Me campaign by the National Council of Social Service.

Selina Gomez lives in Singapore with husband Peter and three sons, Joshua, 3, Ivan, 16, and Immanuel, 18.

Photos: Selina Gomez

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