Author Spreads Autism Understanding All Around the World
My Writing Journeys
I’m often asked, “Why autism?,” followed by “What’s Wayang?” when I tell people about my children’s book, Open—A Boy’s Wayang Adventure. The answers don’t come in one-liners. My path as a writer has been a long and complicated one. I started a food blog some years back to cope with the loneliness of living in a new city. Through my research about food, I came across food-linked obsessions and conditions which I shelved to the back of my mental library. These will resurface again in this book. But moving again meant that the food blog took a hiatus. Not long into moving to Singapore, I found catharsis in writing Flash Fiction that I publish on my blog. Then an event happened that brought me to where I am today—a children’s book author.
How I came to write a book about a boy on the autism spectrum is both a coincidence and an accident.
A coincidence leading to learning about autism
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a subject close to my heart. Long ago, when I started out reading psychology, I met a man at residential school who ignited a life-long curiosity about a certain condition I had no name for back then.
This man would garble on to nobody in particular or repeat the same question, not stopping for a response. He’d talk to me without eye contact; I never knew if he was addressing me or someone else. This man was one of the many psychology students at The Open University Psychology residential school—and he was smart! But nobody would sit with him at meal times which broke my heart. One day at dinner, I sat with him. After that day, William and I became friends. He would talk to me while looking at his fork. I learned more about psychology from him than the recommended textbooks I had to read. He liked custard, I remember, and would always ask for custard even at breakfast.
Many years later, I would come to meet a wonderful woman, Agnes, who taught me a lot about ASD. Her son, Chris, had autism but is very different from William. Chris is non-verbal with a rare genetic condition that also causes other health issues. Chris presents many symptoms associated to autism, like rocking and a sudden outburst of emotions when overstimulated.
By hanging out with Agnes, I began to understand how challenging it is to live with autism and to parent a child with autism. I learned and lived vicariously through her journeys. I also started doing research into ASD. How I respond to autism has been largely due to my own curiosity about people and life, and how we all cope in our own ways with what life throws at us. In finding solutions and helping others do the same, we contribute in little ways to helping make this world a better place for all, I feel.
A happy accident leading to a book
Open – A Boy’s Wayang Adventure is an adaptation of a film—The Wayang Kids—produced in Singapore. It is a collaboration with the film’s creator, Raymond Tan of Brainchild Pictures. When Raymond contacted me to write a story based on his film, I jumped at the opportunity because instinctively, I felt it is a book that I’ve been waiting to write. I’d met Raymond during the 2014 Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC). He was there to present his first film—The Wayang Boy—which I’d watched on the plane coming to Singapore. I told him that I really liked his film, and thus begun a friendship and partnership that led to the book.
In writing the book, I had to be conscious of representation. Individuals on the spectrum vary one from the other, and they are all individuals like neurotypical people, this I knew from personal experience and research. But because the character and narrator of the book is a personality taken from a film, my job as a writer became slightly easier. I based the conversations in the book on what is not said or heard in the film. I also based the character, Open, on all the things I’ve learned from friends who live with people with autism or parent them.
Why the book? I’ve come from the United Kingdom where there is a lot more awareness of autism. Similarly, in the United States, there are myriad support groups and a high level of awareness. Although there is some awareness in Singapore, there is still a need for more outreach. This is because schools in Singapore are organized differently from those in the United Kingdom and America. Schools are either mainstream or “special” here. This ensures that Singapore’s Ministry of Education can manage students’ access to the national curriculum which is considered very rigorous by international and local standards. Managing expectations is never a bad thing, I feel. However, it means that mainstream children would have little contact with someone on the spectrum at school.
From conversations with families parenting children with autism, I’ve come to learn that in a young society like Singapore’s, any psychological condition is considered a taboo. Since autism is viewed under such a label, parents with autistic children are often left without adequate support, although the situation has improved somewhat in recent years, with the internet and more parents seeking support from each other.
Raymond and I discussed how we could use both literature and the moving image to increase the level of awareness in the communities here. The movie came first, then the book which is a bridge to help audiences relate better to Benjamin Oh, the protagonist in The Wayang Kids, who is non-verbal.
In researching for this book, I’ve learned more about autism. In writing the book, I’m hoping to raise awareness through storytelling which helps connect young readers with real issues in their environments that they may not be aware of. In representing an Asian boy on the spectrum, I’m hoping that Asian boys with autism can identify themselves in Open and feel represented.
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From writing for myself to writing for children
Have I ever considered being a children’s writer? In a way, yes but never in this way. I used to make up stories for my daughters who wouldn’t go to sleep after their bedtime story. It was just easier to make stories up in the darkness as they are slowly lulled to sleep with my voice. In these stories, I would make sure to tell them something which they can relate to. A character from Peru has a pet parrot who would not eat the fruits his owner put out. This was during a phase when one of my girls started to fuss about food. This same character was also shy about making friends; I have a daughter who is terribly introverted and find it difficult to make friends. Slowly, these characters became my daughters’ friends.
In writing for children, the characters in the book have to be people that kids can relate to. In the book, Open, also finds it hard to make friends; many children whether autistic or neurotypical can relate to this challenging and often scary aspect of socialization. Open is similar in many ways to the other kids in his class except for one little quirk—he loves to draw monkeys.
In representing a boy on the spectrum, I hope that readers on the spectrum are able to recognize a little of themselves in Open. Nobody should ever be left out because in life there are all sorts of people just as there are various types of leaves and plants. In nature, every plant matters as each contributes to the ecosystem in their own way. Hence, the hashtag for the book is #OpenEveryChildMatters.
The book is also about the Wayang, a Malay word used in Singapore to refer to the Chinese Opera. So, the story also raises awareness of a dying performing art-form brought to Singapore’s shores by Chinese immigrants during the 19th century.
In representing a heritage unique to Singapore, I’m hoping that the book would also reach out to heritage enthusiasts. The Chinese Opera or Wayang, although specific to one culture, can also be interesting to others. The book helps young people make literary and cultural connections, I feel.
Researching the history of the Chinese opera has been a fun-filled journey for an art historian like me. Weaving historical elements into fiction satisfied the (historical) storyteller in me. Writing this book has been a joy.
About the book:
Open is a 10-year-old boy with a curiosity for life and the things that happen around him. He is on the autism spectrum and loves to draw—especially monkeys. When his class is picked to perform in a school play of a Chinese opera story based on the Monkey King’s Journey to the West, Open must find it in himself to overcome his obstacles and courageously step on stage.
The book is an adaptation of a film, The Wayang Kids, by Singapore based studios, Brainchild Pictures. In the movie, Open is a non-verbal autistic. The book gives voice to Open, allowing readers to enter his inner world, the world of his emotions.
In writing the book, the author hopes to cultivate a love for reading literature amongst middle schoolers. By interweaving historical elements of the Chinese Opera, represented by the motif of the monkey, a heritage linked to Singapore can also be unpacked. Importantly, the author hopes to spread awareness of inclusivity in our community.
The book highlights the importance of tolerance and acceptance amongst young children for individuals on the autism spectrum. Although fictional, the story portrays some of the trials and tribulations that certain special needs individuals have to endure by debunking the misconceptions that such individuals lack intelligence and feelings.
Both the movie and the book intend to address issues such as the challenges of parenting a special needs child, how children with autism are viewed by their peers, the importance of peer friendships and acceptance. The publisher, Ethos Books, has called Open a “[…] gift calling to the largeness of our hearts.”
Denise Phua, President of the Autism Resource Centre and an advocate for Special Needs, has commended the writing and publishing of this book.
Where to buy the book:
Movie related link:
Brainchild Pictures: http://www.brainchildpictures.com
This article was featured in Issue 77 – Achieving Better Health with ASD