Week 5 of Serialization: Where Does My Autistic Son Belong? Chapter 5

Kah Ying Choo
25 min readJan 4, 2021


In 2019, I published Where Does My Autistic Son Belong? that chronicles my journey of setting up a new life for Sebastien, my autistic son, after struggling with his aggression that erupted during his puberty and raged unabated for more than five years. This book has been very much part and parcel of A Mother’s Wish initiative (amotherswish.com.sg) to educate parents, educators, and the public about how we can interact with autistic individuals out of genuine empathy and respect.

In the hope that as many people as possible will read it and learn from my parenting mistakes, I will be serializing this book on Medium on a weekly basis (please catch the previous parts on Medium under the same title).

And if you do want to purchase the book, please use this link: https://www.amotherswish.com.sg/product-page/crowdfunding-pledge-s-30.

Funds are still being raised for A Mother’s Wish that supports programs and families of autistic individuals and Sebastien’s future.

Please feel free to spread this message to others who may find this of value. Thank you very much. 🙏



(September 2013 — October 2015)

Our happy holiday interlude in France was actually so remarkable that Sebastien was actually “aggression-free” for one year. I place this term in quote marks because it didn’t mean that he didn’t engage in acts of aggression. Instead, it just meant that no one else, including me, was ever attacked. In fact, this was the period when Sebastien started banging the top of his head with a clenched fist. I wasn’t unduly alarmed about it at the beginning, because he would hit his head just once or twice tentatively and then stop immediately. It wasn’t at all out of control.

You see, back then, I was seizing the opportunity of my reprieve from Sebastien’s aggression to get us back to to the early days of our homeschooling journey as I had once known it — the “honeymoon years of parenting” when I was in charge and Sebastien would comply with my instructions. Of course, at the time, I didn’t consider that the fresh start was based entirely on what I wanted. My objective was to get us back on our homeschooling journey that was supposed to enable Sebastien to become a model young man in the eyes of mainstream society. There was a lot of catching up to do after the detour of pubertal excesses. As I was back to using behavioural management to control his behaviour, I saw Sebastien’s head-banging as a small price to pay for our return to our homeschooling priorities of turning him into a model young man. It was for his own good.

However, even though Sebastien refrained from using any aggression against me, we were not making much headway towards the way things used to be. Sebastien was still “wasting” time during his homework by exaggerating his handwriting strokes and colouring in all the gaps in the individual letters of his handwriting to the point that the words were unintelligible. On the streets, he was still peeling off stickers and picking up garbage, as well as removing labels from the bottles in the house. Furthermore, he would walk so fast on the street that he would elbow people who were in his way, almost knocking them down, without breaking his stride. Occasionally, he would suddenly run up to the side mirrors of parked cars on streets and burst into sudden yells and leaps, while moving traffic swished past him not too far away, which would make my heart race. Monitoring Sebastien’s behaviour in the public space was an extremely stressful task.

Although I was still administering behavioural management, I no longer did it with as much consistency and confidence as before. I treaded cautiously around Sebastien, conscious of the aggression that seemed to be just simmering beneath the surface. Regardless of what I had hoped, I could sense that the situation was deteriorating. Not only were we not returning to the way things were, but Sebastien was also straining at the limits of his tolerance. Over time, his head-banging would increase in frequency and intensity. Towards the end of his “aggression-free” year, it was up to 10 times per episode. To me, he was a volcano teetering on the brink of an eruption; it was just a matter of time.

However, our re-entry to the dark days occurred in a far more subtle way. One way, as we were engaged in our homeschooling routine, I noticed that Sebastien looked different somehow. There was something about his face, which made him look tidier. For a moment, I even felt pleased about this subtle change until I realised that his eyebrows were thinner! Since he didn’t have access to a razor, he must have plucked wisps of his eyebrow hairs away.

After leaving his eyebrows alone for two years after his episode of shaving them entirely off on one occasion, the eyebrow problem had resurrected itself! To me, the return of an old problem that was supposed to have been resolved two years ago was discouraging. It was already hard enough not to be able to extinguish most of Sebastien’s issues. I felt as though I was trapped on a hamster wheel.

It was important for my morale to nip this issue in the bud. So I told Sebastien that he needed to stop plucking the eyebrows or I would cancel his outings. I was acting so compulsively that I even took a few close-up photos of him from different angles to highlight my intentions to monitor his behaviour. Sebastien posed for me readily, holding his gaze steady. I could see a playful smile dancing on the edge of his lips. It was unlike his usual awkward pose of squinting his eyes or squeezing his face into an exaggerated smile. Instead, he projected an air of confidence, as though he was daring me to find him out — a strategic move to knock me off-kilter in our battle with one another. He was calling my bluff: how could I stop him from plucking his eyebrows?

Very likely, my extreme reaction to Sebastien’s eyebrow pulling blew up in my face. It didn’t take long before Sebastien began to pluck away as much of his eyebrows as possible on a periodic basis. While the removal of his eyebrows did not follow any discernible pattern in Singapore, he would always emerge from the shower on the first day of our vacation with just a few wisps of eyebrow hairs. Thus, Sebastien’s bizarre appearance became immortalised in holiday photos taken over a three-year period.

To this day, I am still traumatised by my memory of them. However often it happened, it would always take me a day or two to assimilate his appearance into my consciousness so that I could identify him as Sebastien without gasping in horror. It pained me that Sebastien who was so good-looking would deliberately destroy one of the blessings that he had been given. To me, it had always been a small consolation prize for his condition. It had always irked me when my mother’s friends had lamented about what a shame it was that Sebastien who was so good-looking was afflicted with such a condition, as though being good-looking belonged only to the neurotypical ones. Although I knew that they were just being stereotypical in their thinking, I quietly considered Sebastien’s handsomeness to be an act of defiance against the conventional social order. But, with the removal of his eyebrows, even this consolation prize would be taken away. This was yet a further example of injustice, which infuriated me each time I gazed at him.

* * * * *

Our escalating tension came to a head one day in February 2015. It was a Thursday, the day when I would typically take Sebastien to my mum’s place to learn sewing from her and then see a movie at the movie theatre nearby. This was one of my favourite days of the week: seeing a movie was often a nice diversion for both of us. Nonetheless, this outing was also accompanied by several stressors: taking Sebastien on the public bus; coping with the occasional crowds when collecting the movie tickets and buying the popcorn combo for Sebastien at the movie theatre; and shushing Sebastien if he was too noisy during the movie.

That morning, when I entered Sebastien’s room to wake him up, I was devastated to be greeted by his alien face. Once again, he had plucked out most of his eyebrows. Although he had something pleasant to look forward to that day, it didn’t seem to make a dint of difference to Sebastien’s self-destructive tendencies.

“Why, Sebastien? Why? That’s it. NO MOVIE.” I was furious. It all seemed so unnecessary.

“Movie,” he said, quickly adding, “Sorry for me.”


“MOVIE!” He shouted in response. Then he raised his fist to his head and banged it three times.

I stared at him with indifference, “Go ahead. Bang your head.”

“No. Mama, movie.” He was pleading.

I left his room quickly and went into my own to ponder my options. To be honest, I didn’t know how I was going to enforce my rule for the rest of the day without bracing for another confrontation. Since the early days of my physical confrontations with Sebastien, he had become a lot stronger. Any fight promised to be extremely one-sided and bruising for me, particularly with my resolution not to hit out at him. I didn’t feel up to the challenge.

Thus, I returned to his room with a compromise solution, speaking with as stern a voice as I could summon: “We can go see a movie if you are a good young man at grandma’s house.” Although I had presented a reward with strings attached, I knew that there was no way I would cancel his movie outing once we were at my mother’s place. It would have been far too dangerous to trigger his wrath at her home. The last thing I wanted was for my mother to get hurt. I just wanted to give him the incentive to improve his behaviour. It was also a feeble attempt on my part to reassure myself that I still had some control over the situation. I wasn’t sure if I saw a small smile of victory on Sebastien’s lips. He had gotten his way, even when he had done something he knew he wasn’t supposed to do.

At the unconscious level, I was not convinced by my compromise. Deep down inside, I felt defeated: I was the one who had made all the concessions. The whole situation plunged me into a foul mood. Even though I had given the green light to the outing, I was resentful the whole time. As we walked to my mother’s place after alighting from the bus, I would glare at Sebastien as he bent over every few seconds to pick up a piece of trash or a rubber band, which he collected so that he could insert them painstakingly into the narrow slits of the ATM trash bin.

Despite my tense situation with Sebastien, my mum and I proceeded with the plan to try to purchase a cross-stitch cloth with a low “fabric count” (stitches per inch) so that we could teach him how to do the cross-stitch. Sebastien had struggled to sew on a cross-stitch cloth with a high fabric count, as the “boxes” for each stitch were too tiny, making it hard to demonstrate to him how to do the cross-stitch. So we headed towards the sewing store, which meant navigating past crowds and tolerating Sebastien’s continuous retrievals of garbage and rubber bands, along with my mum’s accompanying commentary about his inappropriate behaviour.

Alas, this expedition proved to be a fool’s errand, which only exacerbated my frustration with the day. The tiny shop didn’t sell what we were looking for; all it sold were cross-stitch sewing kits containing cross-stitch cloths with high fabric count and designs. Just so we hadn’t walk all the way here for nothing, I decided to buy one of these kits. But I was so fed up with the whole situation that I paid for it and marched out of the store. All I wanted to do was to get back to my mother’s home as quickly as possible.

I deliberately moved at a fast pace so that I didn’t have to witness Sebastien’s intermittent stopping to collect a stray rubber band on the ground or pick up yet another piece of trash. So it wasn’t until we were all stopped on a narrow traffic island at a pedestrian stoplight that I noticed that neither my mother nor Sebastien was holding the little plastic bag with the sewing kit.

“Where’s the bag?” I asked.

“He was holding it,” my mother replied immediately.

“BAG.” Sebastien asserted.

He looked down at his empty hands. And then he looked up at me. I knew we were in trouble. Worse still, we were in a terribly dangerous place to have a confrontation. The traffic island was just a thin strip of pavement smack in the middle of busy traffic moving on both sides. I was trapped with very little room to manoeuvre and escape.

Before I could even strategise about my next steps, Sebastien had pounced on my shoulders and pushed me down to the ground. As I struggled to ward off his pummelling fists with my arms and legs, I could see nothing else.

Suddenly, there was a moment of reprieve. Then I heard my mother screaming, “SEB! STOP!” I struggled to scramble to my feet. The last thing I wanted was for my 73-year-old mother to get caught in the crossfire.

“AIYAH!” My mother screamed.

I was too late. When I finally got up, there was my mother on the ground. A pool of blood was spreading beneath her head.

“Oh my god!” I crouched over my mother, who was trying to sit up.

A couple of stout men were holding Sebastien back. He was still coming for me.

“HEY! YOU STOP! HOW CAN YOU HURT AN OLD LADY?!” One of them was shouting at him. I wanted to tell them that Sebastien wasn’t going after my mother, but it seemed pointless. Subsequently, the man informed me, thinking he was reassuring me: “Don’t worry. Someone has called the police. The ambulance is coming.” My heart sank: Sebastien was going to get in trouble with the police. But I was glad that my mother would get prompt medical attention. Feeling both terrified and grateful, I didn’t bother to reply.

Despite her injury, my mother snapped at the young man, “Why you call the police? Aiyoh! He’s my grandson. He’s autistic. I don’t need police or ambulance. I’m okay lah.”

“Oh… But he cannot do that.” The poor man felt unfairly admonished. Both men were still holding onto Sebastien. Every time they loosened their grip slightly, Sebastien looked as though he would lunge towards us.

The wait for the police and the ambulance seemed interminable. For the public heading to the primary shopping centre in the neighbourhood, we must have been quite a spectacle. Some of them knew my mother: she was quite well-known in the neighbourhood due to her extensive volunteering work. The whole scene was surreal: I was seated on the ground, propping up my mother. My hands and dress were stained with her blood, while two men were hanging onto Sebastien who was still struggling to get out of their grasp.

How could the day have gone like this? I was wrenched with guilt. I had done this. What kind of a mother would have a son who would want to do this to her? I must be the worst mother in the world. And now my sin of being the worst mother in the world was being visited on my mother.

When the sirens signalled the arrival of the police and the ambulance, I helped my mother to her feet. The paramedics rushed towards her to escort her to the ambulance. Before my mother left, she spoke to me firmly, “Don’t let the police take him. I’m okay.” She even smiled.

Without her by my side, I suddenly felt as though I was going to fall. All the while, even though I had been physically propping her up because of her injury, my mother had been the strong one who was determined to get through the predicament with her being and family intact.

The police accompanied Sebastien and me across the road. While one police officer kept a watchful eye on Sebastien, the other police officer took out his notebook to interview me. Not too far away, I could see my mother sitting at the back of the parked ambulance. She was still seizing the opportunity to call out to the police officer, “I’m fine. He’s my grandson. He’s autistic. I don’t want him to be charged.”

The police officer wasted no time in getting to the heart of the matter with his intimidating voice of authority: “Do you want him to be charged? I have witnesses across the street saying that he pushed your mother down. As she belongs to the “Pioneer Generation” (a term the Singapore government used to designate citizens above the age of 70), he can be charged, even if he is autistic.”

“I didn’t see anything. He had pushed me to the ground. By the time I got up and saw her, she was already on the ground.” I was telling the truth.

“So you didn’t see anything? I heard your mother. Well, it’s up to you. Do you want to charge him?”

I looked at Sebastien. He was just standing there, slouching slightly, with a gaze of callous indifference, like a remorseless hoodlum. I was tempted: the little girl in me wanted him to pay for what he did to my mother. But somehow, my mother’s words rang in my ears and I hesitated. She, of all people, should have been furious at him; yet, her first reaction was to forgive and protect him. There was no hesitation for her. In contrast, I was ambivalent — a bad daughter and a bad mother. I felt ashamed.

“No.” I managed to eke out a reply. Even then, I didn’t know what I really wanted to do.

“Okay, just make sure that you take him home. If he gets into another incident today, he will be arrested.”

I nodded my head silently, even though I really wanted to tell him that there was no way I could guarantee anything about Sebastien. Anything could happen in the next hour, next minute, next second.

However, we did get home without further incident. To ensure that he wasn’t going to be angry about the sewing kit, I even retraced our route to the sewing shop and bought another sewing kit. After that, we took 30 minutes to walk home. I didn’t want to take the risk of riding on the bus in case anything should go wrong.

That afternoon, I left Sebastien on his own, while I headed for the hospital. He was just lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling. I was too distressed to even say anything to him. It would take almost five hours of waiting at the busy emergency department before my mother was checked into the room for the night. Although the MRI had shown that my mother’s injury was superficial, the doctors wanted to monitor her overnight before discharging her the next day. This was a huge relief for me. At the same time, I was so impressed by my mother who remained cheerful and stoic throughout this ordeal, without once complaining about her pain or the wait.

When I returned to the house, Sebastien was still lying in the same position where I had left him. I went to my bedroom and closed the door. I don’t think he ate that day. And I really couldn’t care less about it.

* * * * *

This incident was a huge wake-up call for me. I saw that my rigid adherence to behavioural management and our constant fighting with one another not only failed to restore our homeschooling life but also produced a fallout that hurt innocent bystanders like my mother.

Turning my back on behavioural management — my principal tool for teaching and managing Sebastien’s behaviour — was a big deal for me. Like a Jedi relinquishing his sabre, I was choosing to walk away from something that I thought I had honed and mastered for almost 10 years. Now, I was truly “weaponless” with nothing to take its place, except my basic instincts that were undermined by tremendous self-doubt.

The void this left behind got me seriously thinking about how much I had been responsible for the deterioration of our relationship. Our constant fights cast a terrible shadow over our love for one another. In my relentless quest to impose control over Sebastien to get him to conform to mainstream behaviour, I disrespected the reality that he had grown up into a young man who no longer wanted to be told what to do. My use of behavioural management to the point of turning kisses and hugs into incentives, which I would withhold from him when he acted out, only conveyed the message that my love for him came with strings attached. It was not my intent, but this was what our relationship had come to with my pushing of the limits of behavioural management.

With this shift in my thinking, I decided that Sebastien had to feel secure in the knowledge that I loved him. So I changed tack. 180 degrees. To counter his show of force, I deluged Sebastien with a shower of love — plenty of spontaneous hugs and kisses throughout the day. My only goal was to make sure that he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I loved him. He did not have to comply with my wishes or earn it. I also paid attention to my tone of voice and attitude in my interactions with Sebastien by stripping them of disapproval and judgment. As much as possible, I strove to limit my range of reactions from neutrality to full-blown praise and support.

Adopting this stance towards Sebastien at all times required attentiveness. It meant that I had to be careful not to let my impatience or disappointment creep into my voice when he was unable to answer some of our routine questions for the umpteenth time on our “training” phone call to teach Sebastien how to respond to my phone calls. It also entailed suppressing feelings of disappointment or disgust, when Sebastien did things like sticking his boogers from his nose into his mouth in public. I would just casually hand him a tissue like it wasn’t a big deal.

Furthermore, when we rode on the commuter train, I would resurrect the force field of love to deflect the energy of fear and disapproval from the public. My force field of protection now consisted of relaxed smiles at Sebastien’s antics of humming loudly or squinting weirdly into the distance, while occasionally massaging his head and putting my arm around him.

Instead of trying to get Sebastien to be quiet, I highlighted the relative harmlessness of his atypical behaviours. With this simple strategy, I noticed that the commuters were also put at ease. Sebastien, the giant, was transformed into a big teddy bear that posed no threat. Of course, such an image did not constitute the entire reality. He was not at all harmless like a teddy bear. He could turn into a real one. And should that happen, the rest was really out of my control. This was a possibility that I thrust to the back of my mind behind my seemingly calm façade.

While the shift in my thinking was positive on paper, in reality, my implementation of the approach was charged with expectations that I didn’t want to admit to myself. My secret hope at that time was that my new approach of love towards Sebastien would somehow “move” him to change for the better and make all his negative behaviour disappear.

Unfortunately, Sebastien was still erupting in occasional meltdowns that could happen anytime and anywhere in response to real-world triggers. By the time Sebastien turned 17, his teenage rebellion that had started with his bizarre experimentation with his penis and poop had given way to high levels of anxiety. Driven by a compulsive need to enforce everything from routines to how things were supposed to look like or operate according to his perceptions, Sebastien could be set off by any unexpected deviations. Therefore, sudden downpours that could derail a routine skating expedition at the park to a seat belt not being laid out for him to use could trigger Sebastien’s meltdown within a matter of seconds.

My softening attitude seemed to hype up Sebastien’s expectations of me. As far as he was concerned, I was supposed to serve as his representative to ensure that all his needs were met and interests catered to. If he did not get what he wanted, he would pounce on me. Essentially, with this change in his expectations, I became the principal target of Sebastien’s attack, regardless of who or what ticked him off. His tactic became simple and focused: all he needed to do was to pressure me to change the situation.

As a result, with each eruption, the different areas of our life began to be eliminated, one by one. The public bus was the first to go. This occurred after an episode in which Sebastien banged his head and hit me when I was unable to pull out the seat belt of the middle seat of the last row, which was jammed beneath the seat. Despite my attempts to calm Sebastien down by counting from “1” to “10” and enlisting the driver to deal with the situation, which was in vain, the seat belt could not have been pulled out without the mechanic’s help, I only managed to deal with the situation by “tricking” Sebastien into leaving the bus one stop early.

However, when I tried to explain to Sebastien that such situations could occur, he was adamant that the seat belt should be “fixed”. Regardless of what I said, he just kept repeating: “Seatbelt… Seatbelt… Seatbelt.” Tears rolled down my eyes: it made me feel utterly helpless that Sebastien could not understand the imperfections of life. Yes, yes, yes, the world is wrong, but what can I do? I can’t change the world for you, even though I wish I could.

And because I could not see how Sebastien would accept this reality and I did not want to experience the stressfulness of these outbursts, we never rode the bus in Singapore again. I just could not go through the recurrent stress of not knowing whether the seatbelt would be jammed or not and the possible consequences.

What went next was the commuter train system. The sad part about eliminating the commuter trains was that they had been an enormous part of Sebastien’s life in Singapore for a decade. The first thing to have captured Sebastien’s attention, they had helped to smooth his transition from Phoenix, Arizona with its sprawling deserts and low population density to its opposite — Singapore, one of the most densely-populated cities in the world. From his very first ride on the commuter train, Sebastien was already tracking the stations, the operational processes of the train, and who knows what else he was concerned about. Essentially, Sebastien’s early experience of the smooth-running trains planted within him the framework of how trains should be running. Being able to count on the trains running like they were supposed to had given him a measure of predictability in his life.

However, 10 years later, the trains were moving decidedly differently. After the spectacular breakdowns of the commuter train on one occasion, it came to light that the overall system had been poorly maintained for years. Apart from the continuous occurrences of massive breakdowns of specific train lines, the “normal” functioning of the train began to be replaced by periodic slowdowns, as well as the repeated opening and closing of train doors at stations. These were all the things that deviated from Sebastien’s original experience of the commuter train. Instead of being a source of predictability, these trains were now a source of anxiety. Every time the train began to slow down along the track, Sebastien would mumble “that way”, pointing towards the direction that the train should be heading. And when the doors were opening and closing, he would also be talking to the doors: “Doors closing.” His characteristic humming revealed his rising anxiety would completely stress me out. How could I contain the situation in a train crowded with commuters should Sebastien explode?

I had initially resisted the idea of forgoing public transportation due to the comparatively high costs of private transport. However, after personally experiencing the ensuing chaos of another massive breakdown of a commuter train line one evening, I capitulated. As I navigated past the crowds of distressed commuters streaming out of the MRT station in search of alternative ways of heading to my destination, I remember feeling calm even though I was about to be late for an academic writing consultation with my client. All I could think of was: “Sebastien is not here…” How would I be able to guide Sebastien out of the station when he would be completely traumatised by the sudden breakdown of the train, which was not supposed to happen? What would happen when Sebastien start to leap up in the air, unleash blood-curling animalistic cries, bang his head with his fists, and attack me? What would the crowd do? I couldn’t continue the train of thought.

From then on, I used Uber (or its local competitor Grab) to take Sebastien for his activities. It wasn’t an ideal solution. Things could still go wrong — not being able to get a car, particularly in the rain, or when the seat belt of the middle seat had been crushed under the seat and difficult to pull out. Still, I reckoned that a car with a small number of people involved would still be far easier to deal with than a bus or a commuter train.

The next thing that went away in our life was one-off parties on weekends when Sebastien was with us. Jerome and I had initially taken the chance that perhaps we could return to the good old days when we could take Sebastien out for occasional social gatherings. Bringing Sebastien to parties wasn’t straightforward. Because he was a fastidious eater who might not like the food available at the party, Jerome and I would typically bring his meal from home. Furthermore, as he was unlikely to be socialising, we would also pack colouring activities and a Word Search book for him. In fact, to match my cousin’s traditional Chinese wedding dinner with 10 courses, I even came up with a creative idea of composing “10 courses” of food items for Sebastien’s meal — a combination of healthy snacks and fruits — packed in individual containers for Sebastien. In between the servings of the courses, Sebastien was given different colouring, stickers, and Word Search activities to keep him engaged for this long event.

Yet, invariably, regardless of how “well” Sebastien would be doing — sitting at the table with other guests, accepting some of the food items they offered, and charming them with his unique colouring, something would go wrong. At a friend’s birthday party, the lights in the barbecue area suddenly went out. Unbeknownst to my friend, the condominium turned off the lighting in the public areas at 10 p.m.! The security guard on duty either didn’t want to or could not do anything about it. When all Jerome and I could offer Sebastien was a torchlight in response to his repeated request, “Light’s on… Lights”, Sebastien banged his head. At that point, everyone at the party headed off to my friend’s apartment. Although they slipped empathetic glances at me, I just felt distressed and mortified. Up until that moment, Sebastien had “passed” reasonably as a talented and independent autistic young man, albeit without any social graces. We even felt like we were breaking the ice between Sebastien and the handful of guests sitting near him. They were saying “Hi” to him, shaking his hands, and offering food to him. However, with one bang of his head, all the effort that Jerome and I had expended into making our social experience with Sebastien possible went to nought.

Similarly, the Chinese wedding dinner went like clockwork initially. Relatives who rarely saw Sebastien welcomed him with delight, gushing about how tall and handsome he was. Sebastien was also not ungracious: he said “hello” and shook hands with many people. Given the fact that the hotel was teeming with people and buzzing with the loud chatter of excitement, Sebastien was doing exceedingly well.

However, at the seventh course, as the atmosphere became more raucous with many of the guests getting increasingly drunk, Sebastien got up dramatically from his chair and headed towards the exit doors. He was targeting the official labels above the EXIT signs of the five sets of doors of this ballroom hall. When Jerome tried to stop him after he had taken off one set of stickers and a hotel manager was breathing down our necks, Sebastien came lunging towards me.

Casey, my sister, was shocked: “Why is he angry with you? You aren’t even holding him back.”

I let out a bitter laugh: “Welcome to my world. It’s always my fault. So long as he doesn’t get what he wants, he blames me.”

She shook her head. For a few seconds, it felt good that someone from the mainstream world got a glimpse into the unreasonableness of my autism prison and validated my distress.

But there was no time to linger. Jerome was struggling to drag Sebastien out through a hotel lobby past clusters of gawking guests, while Sebastien was still trying to get at me. I had to rush out and hop onto a taxi by myself. According to Jerome, only when I was out of sight did Sebastien simmer down.

After these sorts of experiences, Jerome and I got tired of engaging in tortuous discussions, anticipating different scenarios, and evaluating whether the risk was worth the pleasure. To minimise the likelihood of a meltdown, we began to adhere strictly to Sebastien’s routine activities and places where the element of the unknown would be as negligible as possible. Of course, even then, we would still be sabotaged by unforeseeable events and circumstances often associated with life.

Each time a meltdown occurred, I would play back in my head what had happened in slow motion, stopping at different moments to see what else I could have done at a specific point in time. Should I focus on calming Sebastien down or addressing the problem that is troubling him? What is the proper order of actions that I should do when I was the only person there? What could I do to pre-empt the meltdown? I had always believed that every experience should present a lesson from which I could learn. After so many episodes, I was still at my wit’s end. I had yet to figure out the formula for preventing another episode from happening.

In the midst of feeling disempowered about my parenting ability, I came close to identifying a piece of the puzzle for helping me cope with raising Sebastien, though I wasn’t able to adhere to the wisdom of this epiphany under pressure. Being forced to acknowledge the reality that I had lost all control over Sebastien made me realise that I needed to devote my energy to gaining 100% control over myself. Instead of feeling terrified of or resigned as to what Sebastien would do next, I needed to focus on reining in my emotions. Unfortunately, back then, I considered this discovery not as an end in itself, but as a means to show Sebastien how to control his emotions. Essentially, I was still diverting the focus from regulating myself to Sebastien.

Although I did not actively seek out a calming tool, it came into my mind — a specific piece of music that I found myself humming throughout the day. It was Glenn Gould’s nuanced and haunting rendition of the second movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto in D Minor BWV 974, Adagio. Quite a few years ago, Jerome had introduced me to this remarkable interpretation of a composition that he had once dismissed as boring until he had heard Gould’s rendition. When I heard it, I too fell in love with Gould’s masterly performance of these repetitive chords with fine-tuned control and restrained pace, teazing all the nuances from deceptively simple notes. His steady and controlled playing of the notes, chords and trills exuded quiet persistence and tenacity, like flowing water that could wear down impregnable rocks with gentle force. And while the music was playing, I could almost believe that this quiet courage could seep into my being and that no one, not even Sebastien, could take it away. For several weeks, I literally had the piece playing in my ear all day long to keep my fears and anxiety about Sebastien at bay. So long as no real crisis broke out, the piece helped me to maintain some kind of emotional equilibrium.

* * * * *

Nonetheless, regardless of what I did, whether I was consistently strict with Sebastien, or unconditionally loving, I wasn’t able to stop his meltdowns from occurring at intervals ranging from once a week to once every three weeks. With this new assessment, the parenting pendulum swung back to a medium position. I put my foot down and drew the line. Although I did not revert to my modified behavioural management approach, I implemented the basic version of issuing rewards or consequences with my focus centred on extinguishing his aggression. In the process, I was once again putting myself in danger of confronting a bigger and stronger Sebastien in a meltdown. It was back to a state of watchful vigilance.



Kah Ying Choo

Mother of an autistic young man, who has been my muse and my teacher, published author, educator, and learner, schooled by the University of Life