The Youths For Autism Internship Programme (YFA) is one of the many outreach programmes run by the Autism Resource Centre to promote awareness of autism. After going through a rigorous selection process, successful applicants were allocated to Eden School, where they will spend five months serving and learning about the autism community.
On the first day, we were slightly apprehensive about meeting the students as we didn't know what to expect. Kevin shared, "Can we cope? How are the kids like? How are we going to communicate with them?" These were genuine fears gnawing at him then.
Nevertheless, we took the jobs assigned to us in our stride. Jasmine and Tong Li were assigned to classes to aid teachers in managing the students. Being assigned to fixed classes, they were able to understand the students better and provide support in group settings when the teacher's attention is divided, or at the work alone areas. Besides class support, Pearlyn and Jiahui also carried out administrative work, designing and creating teaching resources such as folder tasks that would benefit the students who are generally visual learners. They also helped in the vocational classes, such as Workforce Skills Qualification (WSQ) cleaning and the F&B kiosks. Kevin and Isabel were attached to the Student Affairs department and undertook a videoing project where they filmed down key activities of each student and compiled the footage of each individual into a personal video.
Still, our job scopes were not limited. There were ample opportunities for us to get our feet wet in other areas. For instance, when not assigned to classes, we were deployed to any classes or lessons that required additional temporary help. Furthermore, we accompanied classes out on excursions regularly to teach students daily living skills such as road safety and buying groceries. In addition, we improved the students' learning experience in class by restructuring the classrooms such that they suit the students' needs better. Teachers were also able to easily refer to their weekly lesson plans using the folders that we have pinned up in each classroom. The notice boards were equipped with red borders that highlighted the Crisis hotline, a guide on handling seizures and the behaviours of the high-risk students to help teachers and therapists better manage students' meltdown.
In class and at the worksites, we were able to see how job schedules, work systems and visuals were used and how vital they were in helping the students to get their work done. They give the students a clear overview of their routines and provide detailed steps for the students to follow so that they would not be uncertain of their tasks. Similarly, teaching aids like visuals are very important as they aid the students in communicating their needs and wants to their teachers.
Over the five months, we gradually picked up autism-friendly learning support strategies. Besides gaining first-hand experience through this internship, the induction courses we attended on Tuesday afternoons and a night workshop at Pathlight School introduced us to the fundamentals of autism, and we gained knowledge on the triad of impairment and various sensory issues that affect individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Being able to assist the students in the classroom and their various activities outside the class has been instrumental in creating many meaningful and unforgettable memories. Attending assembly in the morning, going for snack time in the café, participating in gym and art classes; all these have become routines in our 5 month stay in Eden. However, we were able to find joy and meaning through these events with the students' liveliness and their candid moments. We are often in awe of the students' sheer determination and optimism they exhibit. They are able to take great joy and pride in completing tasks such as skating around the hall without any assistance or baking cakes and muffins during their weekly CCAs. These seemingly insignificant activities are outlets of interactions for the autistic children and will also teach them worthwhile habits. We learn and feel a gamut of emotions when we see the students apply these habits such as sharing their baked goodies with friends and teachers after their baking session.
From a layman's perspective, autism has been described as a disorder where the individual isolates himself from the world. However, our experiences have debunked these misperceptions. There were opportunities that allowed us to gain a deeper insight into the world of autism. By observing activities like music time and art class, we have a wider understanding on their forms of expression and their emotions. One student enjoys music through rocking and while another will be dancing on his feet. It is indeed true that autism is all about differences and how we can understand by embracing these differences.
To put it simply, we learnt a lot. There was a lot of prejudice to be broken, and misconceptions to be debunked. As the saying goes, "People are afraid of what they are unfamiliar with". We were indeed afraid and anxious when we first came, but we ended up gaining so much from this experience. Yes, we can cope. We know how to at least instruct and attempt to get the students' attention to teach. The students are in fact like ordinary children, active bundles of joy and laughter. In fact, we would not have known about them having autism if we were to see them on the street. The students might throw tantrums when they are angry, sad or when they seek attention – all traits that "neurotypical" (those with ‘properly' functioning mental faculties) children also exhibit. The students enrolled here are taught many life and vocational skills, and they are exempted from formal examinations, creating a naturally sprightly and fun environment!
This internship has really been a humbling experience. We have learnt so many skills that cannot be learnt elsewhere and transferables that we will bring with us on our future endeavours. It has reshaped our views on autism and the special needs community in general. As ambassadors of the autism community, we will raise awareness for this special group of people and pass on what we have learnt to our peers.