Lessons from the differently abled
Lessons from the differently abled
A father muses on his son Delwin’s autism and its impact on their family
When Delwin Cheah was between the ages of one and three years old, he was a cheerful boy, although he barely communicated with us (his parents), or friends his age. There was no eye contact, and he always mumbled to himself and played alone.
Delwin started to speak at four but was not fluent until he was seven. He could, however, recite nursery rhymes perfectly, even backwards. He also enjoyed singing and has a lovely voice.
Music helped Delwin connect with the rest of the world. He has a matured and eclectic taste for someone just 15 years old. He loves the Bee Gees, Michael Jackson, The Carpenters, The Beatles, Pavarotti and Hong Kong singers and bands, Jacky Cheung, George Lam, Sally Yeh and Beyond.
Growing up, Delwin had a tendency to become agitated and restless. It was tough for him to sit still, and because of his behaviour, we dreaded crowded, public spaces. But keeping Delwin at home was doing him more harm. Isolating him from the outside world prevented Delwin from being exposed to external stimuli and situations, and his behaviour worsened.
I was still in denial about Delwin’s condition when he was five years old. Autism was almost unheard of in Malaysia a decade ago. I refused to accept that Delwin was different from other children and had special needs. This caused a lot of tension at home, and my wife and I argued frequently. I was not the best of fathers then, spending a lot of time at the office, to escape my family situation.
If not for my wife, who threatened to divorce me if I did not take responsibility for Delwin’s medical condition and his future, we would have lived on in ignorance. She insisted we sought professional help for our son. I was against this idea at first, because I believed that only people with mental illnesses saw psychologists. But we finally brought Delwin to a specialist, and he was diagnosed with both autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and Asperger’s.*
Delwin’s hidden talents
Besides being smart, we soon discovered Delwin’s other hidden talent.
I still remember the day clearly. I pulled out a piece of paper and caught Delwin’s attention. He started to draw on it. The rest was history.
Delwin’s natural gift as an artist flourished. We sent him to art class, but was initially turned away, because of his condition. It would be the first of many rejections from people who did not understand, or feared Delwin’s difference.
Although, we were pained by the way people discriminated against children with ASD, we did not give up. Eventually, we found a veteran artist who saw Delwin’s potential and encouraged us to fulfil his calling as an artist. We began to understand that art was a way for Delwin to voice his thoughts and feelings.
Recognition of Delwin’s art
Delwin’s art pieces have received widespread recognition in his home country, and around the world. He held his first solo exhibition at nine years old with more than 70 paintings, becoming the ‘Youngest Savant Artist to Hold a Solo Exhibition’ – a world record.
Famous Malaysians have acknowledged his talents, as well as international celebrities. Even former US President Obama and England’s Queen Elizabeth II have sent Delwin signed letters praising his artwork.
Who would have thought a boy on the autism spectrum living on the small island of Penang would inspire others halfway across the world? I often pinch myself to see if I am dreaming.
Life has been a whirlwind. We continue to give talks to share our experiences living with autism. We have also inspired other families like ours.
Once a taboo in Malaysia, people are more open to talking about ASD, and more inclusive of children on the spectrum.
Family is the pillar
Society must not label people with a disability as ‘different’. By accepting these labels, you limit what people can achieve. Everyone needs a fair chance.
Acceptance starts at home. My wife says that giving up on one’s child because they have ASD, or other conditions, is a failure. We must move forward as a family despite the hardship. Team work has been the key to helping Delwin discover his abilities, and to become the incredible boy he is. We encourage other families to continue striving for the future of their child, and children, no matter the obstacles they face.
*In 2013, Asperger’s was placed under the umbrella diagnosis of ASD.