Autism News - Sunday Times

 

I was a visitor to Planet Earth

Source: Sunday Times, 03 FEB 08
By Wong Kim Hoh

In the last instalment of New Asian Heroes, an eight-part series on Asians who lead inspiring lives, meet Eric, who suffers from autism and wants to raise awareness of the illness.

(click to enlarge)

Touching Base: Eric used to describe people as "alien life forms" as they are unpredictable and shunned contact with them, but not anymore. After he was diagnosed with autism, he became determined to integrate himself into society and raise awareness of autistic people.


Eric has the demeanour of a geek. His angular face is framed by nerdy glasses and his lanky frame is sheathed in straight-cut jeans, white T-shirt and checked short-sleeve shirt.

He's a tad unsure and awkward as he sits down to talk about his life. Two hours into the conversation, however, he is comfortable enough to ventilate personal frustrations and passionately decry the despairing state of humanity.

At times, he is intense, at others bashful and self-effacing.

The 24-year-old computer programmer wasn't always like this. In fact, he used to shun contact with people, describing them as "alien life forms" because they are so unpredictable, unreliable and irrational, nothing like computers which are so much logical.

Eric, you see, has Asperger's Syndrome, part of a group of diagnoses called "autism spectrum disorders".

Autism, which affects mostly males and can range from high functioning to severe in nature, is a brain disorder which can affect a person's ability to communicate, relate to others and interact with his surroundings.

A logistics graduate from Ngee Ann Polytechnic, he has high functioning autism.

The older of two children of an electrician and housewife, he is highly intelligent, writes beautifully and since his early teens, has earned pocket money fixing and repairing computers.

He learnt about his condition about seven years ago after chancing upon an Internet article on the disorder.

Convinced that he had all the characteristics described, he got himself diagnosed by the Autism Resource Centre and was proven right.

It explained why he was, in his own words, such an odd child.

His mother was disturbed enough by his strange behaviour - not looking at her when speaking, repeating her words, ignoring her - to take him to a general practitioner.

The doctor said he was fine.

"I didn't feel the need to interact with other children. In fact, they bothered me. I'd rather read books on physics and astronomy, collect plants and fish and jot notes in my notebooks," says Eric, who has a younger sister, aged 21.

At Montfort Junior Primary school in Hougang, he was often bullied because he was perceived as weird.

"I didn't understand social bonds or emotional attachments. Friendships were transactions to me. Friends were not people whom I like but people who could help me or exchange interesting ideas with me," he says, adding that he had no inkling of concepts like warmth and affection.

By the time he entered Holy Innocents' High secondary school, he was already devouring books on psychology and accelerated learning.

He'd badger teachers to implement creative teaching methods only to be told gently to focus on his studies instead.

The youth - who used to describe himself as a visitor to Planet Earth - hatched grand plans, deciding that the only way that people would listen to him would be to get rich.

"I told myself that I would make US$10 billion by the time I was 35. Then I would build a centre for humanity where I can solve all their problems like finding cures for cancer and Aids," he recalls, laughing.

He had his condition formally diagnosed while he was pursuing his diploma in logistics at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

It was an awakening of sorts for him, prompting him to beef up his reading on the subject and to touch base with other autistic people. He made a commitment to accept and be proud of himself.

He surfed the Net, logging into chatrooms for autistic people. Although he learnt a lot, he also found the experience draining.

"Some were depressed and suicidal. They were not really helping me," he says.

His other awakening came when he was doing his national service. He read a lot of philosophical tomes, Buddhist texts and forked out a few hundred dollars to attend a series of emotional releasing workshops.

He says the last helped to clear the confusion, bewilderment and other emotional conflicts he was experiencing.

Determined not just to integrate himself into society but also to raise awareness of autistic people, he poured $4,000 of his savings to publish and print 1,000 copies of his first book, Mirror Mind, after completing NS in 2005.

It's a collection of poignant verses and stories by a writer who felt as though his soul was "stuck in an alien container". The book has since sold 988 copies.

He wrote a second book, Autism & Self Improvement, last year which currently being translated into Chinese.

The book's postscript includes this poignant line, "I thank autism for showing me the grandness of the human experience by depriving me of it."

A philanthropist from Macau was so impressed by his story that she sponsored him to stay and give talks to various organisations - from universities to autistic associations - in Hong Kong and Macau.

A social worker did the same and Eric ended up giving talks in several cities - Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Qingdao - in China, some of which attracted several hundred people.

He did this over the last two years, sometimes delivering as many as four talks a week.

"In China, some of them travelled from other cities to listen to me. In one city, a woman came up to me with tears in her eyes and told me she now understands her son," he recalls proudly.

He has also given talks at the Pathlight School and the Kampung Senang Charity and Educational Foundation in Singapore.

He wanted to stay in Hong Kong and China and continue his autistic advocacy work, but finally gave in to his mother's pleas to come back and get a proper job. He started his programming job just this week.

Eric, however, is not resting on his laurels. He already has plans for a third book which he hopes can be turned into a movie.

He believes that Humanity is on the verge of a major crisis if it does not change. Instead of painting the usual doomsday scenario, he says his new book will not only help people understand autism but also inspire them to create a better future.

Relationships - yes, he wants one - can wait. Humanity is in danger and he needs to get the project done first.

The New Asian Hero series is sponsored by DBS. Log on to http://iautistic.com to find out more about autism and order Eric's books.


Clarification

1) Mirror Mind Sales

I did not sell 988 copies of Mirror Mind. [If only I could have done so...] I gave many of them away (around 350-450 copies), mostly to charities and friends.

2) Autism as a disease?

The reporter has described autism as a disease. This is not my opinion.

3) Describing people as "Alien Life Forms"

Although I felt that Earthlings are alien to me, but most of the time, I was the one who was alien (and alienated).

4) Reading books in secondary school

I was devouring science textbooks ever since Primary school, but only started reading psychology and accelerated learning books in Secondary 3.

5) Cost of emotional releasing workshops

The workshops cost about $1000-$2000 in total, not a few hundred. The organisers have since greatly increased the price.

6) Saving Humanity

Maybe I was too excited during the interview and gave the impression otherwise. However, after struggling for years, I am giving myself a break from working on my personal projects. I need time and space for my personal life.

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