Limitations for an autistic child in regular school

Akhil Datta faced many challenges attending regular school.

When her son was born, everything was fine except his speech. He did not start talking as early as her daughter did. Everyone assumed it was normal because the boy’s grandfather also had a speech delay, and girls always chatter more anyway.

When he was about to go to kindergarten, he could understand what was said to him, but unlike others his age, he was still not talking. Yet, he went to kindergarten.

The paediatrician then suggested visiting a speech therapist because, at that point, he could say a few words but he wasn’t speaking in sentences like his peers. He also went for occupational therapy because his motor skills were lacking. When you threw him a ball, he couldn’t gauge the distance to catch it.

“His speech therapist worked with him, but she strongly suggested we not put him in a special school because he was perfectly normal, just slow,” relates mum Annam Balasundram.

That’s how Akhil Datta found himself in a regular primary school, in a class of 30-40 children.

“At about age 10, the paediatrician said he had Asperger’s Syndrome. I didn’t know what autism was then. I didn’t know what Asperger’s was. So, I said, okay, what do I need to do? Where do I go from here? Then, I just kept pushing him. I don’t know if that’s what a regular parent does, but I just did what I felt was right,” says Annam.

Every year, she got a report on his progress from his speech and occupational therapists and presented it to the teachers. It was her way of ensuring they knew he was slower than the other kids and aware of his limitations.

Yet, the limitations were not Akhil’s; instead, they were in others’ expectations of him.

In Standard Six, the teachers said, “Don’t let him sit for his UPSR (Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah). After all, UPSR isn’t important, it will bring the school standard down.”

“I told them, I don’t care about your school standard. My son sat through six years with your school. He went through all the class tests and all your term exams. He did all your projects. He went through your whole curriculum. Let him sit for the UPSR. If he passes, well and good. If he fails, then that’s his fate. I just want my son to know that he’s worth something,” says Annam.

Akhil was allowed to sit for the UPSR. Although the regulations stipulate that OKU (Orang Kurang Upaya, or special needs) students sitting for exams need to be given a separate room, the school could not do so. Undeterred, Annam made sure Akhil’s table had an OKU sticker on it for the invigilator to distinguish him from the other students. She also spoke to the chief invigilator and told him that her son has special needs and is entitled to extra time to complete his papers.

He finished his papers with the rest of the students, not even using the extra time allocated to him. Like his classmates, he passed the exam with a full certificate.

Then he went to secondary school and Annam went through the same process of getting the annual report from the speech therapist and passing it on to the teachers.

In Form Three, Annam decided to quit her job so that she could devote more time to Akhil. When it came time to sit for the PMR (Penilaian Menengah Rendah), the school tried to discourage Akhil from sitting for the exam, saying they would just push him up to Form Four.

His determined mother had the same dialogue with principal and teachers that she had had just three years ago with the primary school teachers. She asked them to “give him the advantage, just take a chance with him”. Again, they couldn’t allocate a separate room because there were too few OKU students. So, Akhil sat in the hall with the other students. He overcame this hurdle as well.

Two years later, in Form Five he faced the ultimate exam – the SPM (Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia).

“I was told by the teachers, don’t let him sit for his SPM now, he will not get through, he will fail. I said, ‘I don’t care. Let him fail. Let him know what failure is about, but let him sit for the exam. All his friends are sitting for it. My son has gone through the curriculum with you. Let him sit for it. If he fails, good. If he passes, better.’

“So, he sat for his SPM. I remember, the history paper, which was an open book test. When he came out of the hall, he said, ‘Mum, I didn’t finish one question’. One question was worth about 20 marks. The teachers looked at me, wondering how I would react.

“I said, it’s okay. This is only one paper, let’s concentrate on your other exams now. This was one of the earlier papers and I made sure I didn’t kick up a fuss. Of course, inside, I was dying, thinking this paper was gone, he would fail. I was so sure he was not going to get a full cert,” she explains.

On the day the results were handed out, Annam and Akhil arrived early at the school. There was a din as the students and parents were excitedly chatting. Annam was as nervous as every other parent there although Akhil was calm as usual. A hush blanketed the area as soon as the teachers started calling out the results. They called out the names of the top scorers, then those who got 7A’s. Next, it was those who achieved 6A’s followed by the 5A’s. Then they called the names of those who did exceptionally well.

The list of names seemed to be long. By the time the teachers were done with the achievers, the excitement had drained out of Annam’s face. One of the mothers, whose son was a top student, came up to her. She used to help ferry Akhil home from school and she now offered comforting words.

“Annam, it’s okay. Calm down. Even if he fails SPM, it’s okay. It doesn’t matter.”

Annam steeled herself to face the inevitable truth.

Then, she heard the announcement: “This is one boy nobody thought would finish Form Five …”

Akhil’s name was called. He got B’s, C’s and D’s. He passed all his papers, obtaining a full certificate!

“I never expected him to pass Form Five. Never! The number of hurdles he had to overcome, plus he didn’t answer that question in History,” said Annam, beaming with pride.

It’s been a long and arduous journey so far for her.

Annam Balasundram (second from right) with her husband Cumaravadivale, daughter Rajeshi and son Akhil.

Today, Akhil is 20 and enrolled in an office management course in Premier Institute in Kuala Lumpur. The college caters to slow learners and is partially skills-based. His father takes the train with him when he goes to college in the morning and he rides the train home by himself. Annam, who has returned to work, albeit part-time, picks him up from the train station.

On the drive home, she always asks him what went on in school and if he has any homework.

“He will keep the assignments and take them out every day. There is no resistance to doing homework, mainly because he’s been taught to do it from small. For children like this, it’s easy to teach them compared to regular children because they are so dedicated and stick to the rules. When the teacher tells them something, they follow it diligently. But, at the same time, if you don’t push them out there, they are not going to do anything.

“We have always been able to communicate about school work. I would tell him what he needs to do, and he would tell me whether he could do it. Then, we would agree on a compromise.

“You can’t just tell him, do this now. You have to understand his limitations and respect that. When you give him leeway, he will come out to try and meet you at least halfway. If you insist on one-way communication where you instruct and he follows, you’re not going to get anything done. Most children will do it out of fear but autistic children will just keep quiet and not do it,” says Annam.

When there is a lot of homework or assignments to be completed, Akhil sometimes feels stressed and frustrated. To defuse the tension, Annam uses the same method she has practised from the time he was small. She breaks out in song and dance. Sometimes it is something from the Sound of Music. At other times it is a Disney movie song. Soon, Akhil joins in and the mother and son are caught up in the moment.

“It calms him down and makes him laugh. Then, after a while, he will say, ‘Mum, can you keep quiet? You’re making too much noise.’ I’ll respond with ‘Thank you very much, now can you go back to your lessons?’

“It’s not brilliant science. It’s just a mother’s gut instinct method to get her child to complete his work. It’s a quick distraction for him. I’ve always been singing in the house so this was natural for me,” says Annam, who hopes her son will get an office job after college.

She has also enrolled him for tabla classes at the Temple of Fine Arts. According to Annam, music is very good for Akhil as it calms him down and gives him something outside of academic studies to focus on. It also helps him interact with others in the community.

“He absolutely loves it. Classes are once a week on Sunday at 9 o’clock. He’s up at 6 o’clock. By 8 o’clock, he says, ‘Mummy! Mummy, we must go to the Temple of Fine Arts. The class is at 9 o’clock.’ We reach there at 8.30. The music room door is still closed. The teacher is not there. He opens the door, switches on the air-cond and the lights, sits down and he practises on his own,” she says.

Akhil speaks to anyone and everyone these days. Words and sentences no longer hinder his development. In fact, if you didn’t know better, you might not even realise he is autistic.