Going onstage (www.esplanade.com).


Like father, like son, like the arts

A first-time dad, a child with autism & the benefits of music and theatre


Published: 29 May 2019

Time taken : ~10mins

A first-time dad, a child with autism & the benefits of music and theatre

Like most dads, I run around, kick a ball and climb the occasional tree with my son Kai. But here's something about Kai: he has autism.

Born in 2004, he was a healthy adorable kid. However, when he was about three and a half years old, we noticed that he seemed different from his peers. Apart from speech and communication delays, his behaviour was often explosively violent, and he had tantrums that would last for hours. Eventually, after a lengthy process of occupational and psychological assessments, he was confirmed to be on the autism spectrum. I was devastated.

Prior to his diagnosis, Kai was already exposed to different art forms, from classical music to musicals. We watched recordings of musicals such as Les Misérables and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, sang along to the songs, played dress up and pretended to be the characters in the shows.

We dabbled with paints and colours, and experimented with a vast array of materials, mediums and textures. Upon his diagnosis, we took an even more proactive approach towards Kai’s development, which consciously included the arts and music.

It's about what Kai can do, not what he cannot do

We eventually returned to Singapore and Kai was accepted into Pathlight School, which provides an enriching environment for students with autism. I felt relieved. While at Pathlight, he was handpicked to participate in the Artist Development Program (ADP) and selected works of his were integrated into merchandise with commercial value, such as T-shirts, coffee mugs and umbrellas. The programme itself provides a sense of value and purpose for many people on the spectrum, including Kai.

Kai continued to receive weekly piano lessons, this time from a professional piano teacher. For me, music appreciation was key, but I had another reason – I read that learning to play the piano stimulates the brain and helps with cognitive development in children, especially in those with special needs.

Research suggests that neurons in our brains fire up to decipher notes, translating into a series of awkward coordination of the eyes, hands and feet, in order to play a sensible melody. As Kai’s piano lessons progressed, I observed small but significant developments – he communicated and followed instructions better, sat up straighter and eventually, learned to regulate his emotions better.

Exposing him to live arts experiences and hands-on workshops has given me valuable insights into what Kai is capable of. Living in Singapore, we are glad that there is an array of arts performances, many of which are free or affordable. While attending these performances, he has learned to sit through most of them without kicking up a colossal tantrum – an achievement in my books. Signing him up for a Chinese drumming workshop that was held at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay also displayed his potential for rhythm and tempo control and his ability to perform in front of an audience.

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Party! At <em>Shaggy and The Trims</em>, a <em>PLAYtime! 2019</em> production at Esplanade, which offers sensory-friendly editions for those with special needs.

Quality time for the whole family

The arts has also created the opportunity for us to spend quality time together as a family. Sensory-friendly PLAYtime! productions, an interactive theatre series from Esplanade for kids six and under, have given us an avenue to enjoy live performances together in an environment tailored for children like Kai.

Thoughtful provisions have been made in these shows, from lighting and sound adjustments, to creating a cosy, calming space that children and their caregivers can access in case they need to step out from the performance space. Going through printable pre-visit guides that come with every sensory-friendly PLAYtime! production also enables us to anticipate surprises and manage any potential issues that might come up.

As much as possible, I try to engage Kai’s senses through the arts. Many on the autism spectrum have Sensory Processing Disorder, a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses, and they may be over- or under-responsive to stimuli.

Visits to places like the National Museum and Peranakan Museum give Kai a glimpse of Singapore history, while the Singapore Art Museum exposes him to the array of visual art forms that exist. Sometimes, I bring him to Little India and Chinatown so that he can take in the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of various cultures. These visits intrigue Kai.

The arts has also opened a window for Kai to express himself and develop his interests further. In his early years, I showed Kai my doodles in the hopes that they might spark his interests in drawing – and it has. Now Kai has a growing interest in manga and sketching, and his talent in visual arts has gradually become more noticeable. He carries with him a sketchbook wherever he goes and draws anything he likes. It helps him to self-regulate, keep focus and stay calm.

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A sketch from Kai's book of drawings.

Having thumbed through his sketchbook lately, both my wife and I are astonished by how much his sketching and shading skills have matured.

The benefits of a shared experience

Through shared experiences, people socialise, communicate and develop relationships. These are abstract behaviours that a person within the autism spectrum often struggles with.

The arts has given Kai and I many shared experiences, and yet another way to interact. I am very thankful that our efforts through the arts have not only helped Kai with sensory regulation, but also strengthened our relationship.

Every time we do something fun and interesting together, it cements another brick in our relationship. His trust in me grows deeper and solidifies the father-son bond we have. Today, Kai and I can talk about almost anything under the sun. It is a maturing two-way conversation and no longer a monologue like it used to be. Kai would even seek me out and tell me about the songs and movies he likes, a priceless gift to me as a father.

More importantly, these efforts have opened a window for Kai to express his personality and develop an appreciation for the arts. Not only does he enjoy live shows, he is no longer anxious being on stage. The frantic shifts in costumes, lights and sounds no longer affect him the way it used to. He has also become normalised in his overall tactile sensory processing, no longer hypersensitive towards sounds, lights and textures.

Having thumbed through his sketchbook lately, both my wife and I are astonished by how much his sketching and shading skills have matured.

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A family outing to National Gallery Singapore.

Get involved parents!

While every child develops differently, I strongly encourage parents to embrace the arts as one of the ways to help your children grow. As a parent, take an interest in the arts. Kids would most likely emulate what their parents do and this will eventually be one of the bricks in building a strong and happy relationship. Get involved, be proactive and when the time is right, take a step back and watch as they become their own person.

Each experience is a learning opportunity not just for the kids, but for ourselves too. The journey with our children is boundless and can only be made more colourful and magical through the arts.

Contributed by:

Lawrence Ng

Lawrence was an HR practitioner and counsellor. He is now a full-time carer to his son Kai who is on the autism spectrum and writes about his journey in fatherhood at stayhomedadandson.blogspot.com