April is National Autism Awareness month. It is a welcome acknowledgement for the Cheahs, who have been raising a son who is an autistic savant.
Delwin Cheah, 14, is more accomplished than any of his peers. He has received letters of recognition from former US President Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II; he had a solo art exhibition; and a spot in a popular Chinese food travelogue show.
But what’s missing in Delwin’s narrative is that he is a savant who had been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Autism is a condition that begins in childhood and causes problems in how the person forms relationships and communicates with other people. It is estimated than one out of 600 children in Malaysia is born autistic1.
In Delwin’s case, as soon as the diagnosis was definite, his parents, Lawrence Cheah, 42, a business consultant, and Erina Law, 42, a businesswoman, chose to seriously slow down their hectic lifestyles and careers to help Delwin develop.
“Before he was diagnosed with ASD, we were focused on our corporate milestones and goals,” says Lawrence. “Of course, even back then we noticed some behavioural red flags. For example, Delwin was a late talker and had difficulties with expressive communication and social skills. But we assumed it was just a phase and he would grow out of it.
“After his diagnosis, my wife and I decided to prioritise Delwin. There was never a moment of hesitation. We worked closely with Delwin’s therapist to understand the syndrome. We did a lot of research and attended a lot of autism seminars, too”.
The Cheahs took on a different approach in teaching Delwin: “As parents, we chose to have a myopic view in developing Delwin. For example, we did not compare his milestones with other children. Instead, we took our time to find out what he excelled in and weeded out what he did not excel in,” Lawrence explains.
Delwin was not born an artistic savant – he became one after Lawrence showed him how to draw on a piece of paper. “When we discovered his talent in drawing, we hoped that art would help to end our one-way communication. But it did not. In fact, Delwin isolated himself from his surroundings. All he did was draw,” says Lawrence.
Over time, Delwin’s drawings provided a platform for him to achieve better socialisation, language acquisition and independence. “Attending dinners, exhibitions and social events requires Delwin to interact with the public. Although he still does not talk much, he is showing improved social skills around strangers. He enjoys posing for pictures and signing autographs. We take that as a small win,” says Lawrence.
The Belum Forest 2.
Everyone is Different
Delwin's venture in China was made possible by Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh and Megan Fong.
Delwin not only changed the Cheahs’ lives, he shifted their paradigm, too. “Whenever we see a child throwing a tantrum in public, we empathise with the parents. Before this, we might have told them to control their child.”
The Cheahs also learned that not all savants can be lumped together in the same category. Some savants are excellent in memorisation, as in the case of Gregory Blackstock, who is an incredible mimic and speaks a dozen languages. At a recent New York City exhibition, he surprised one of the guests by engaging her in Japanese.
“Delwin is wired differently. If we ask him to draw a tiger, we have to be a bit specific about the species of the tiger. Most children identify tigers as cat-like animals with black stripes, but for Delwin, it’s the Siberian tiger, Balinese tiger, Bengal tiger, Malayan tiger or Sumatran Tiger. I think sometimes he can even describe each part of the tiger and differentiate the size of the tigers,” says Lawrence.
The Cheahs also discovered that unlike other children, Delwin learns a lot more from TV than from social interaction. For example, Delwin speaks English with an American accent because he obsessively watches National Geographic documentaries on television. His first drawings were of zebras, which he drew continually for months. Gradually, he became fond of drawing lions, giraffes, wildebeests and many other animals not found in Asia. “His drawings are not merely monochromatic lines; they are a reservoir of memory and imagination. He shows glimpses of his world through his drawings,” explains Lawrence.
Defying the Odds
The Cheahs donning WWF Malaysia T-shirts Delwin designed.
Navigating life in a society that is uninformed about autism has its challenges. “We were once looked down upon by friends. Even a close friend laughed at us. Delwin was neglected, bullied and rejected by his school friends and teachers. We were even cursed by an elderly man; he said that Delwin is a retard because of our ancestor’s bad deeds,” Lawrence shares sadly.
Despite experiencing first-hand the meanness of the ignorant, the Cheahs did not become discouraged. Instead, they are fighting hard to educate the public about autism. Delwin has since partnered with Strokes of Genius, a New York-based organisation that empowers artists with autism. He also collaborated with WWF Malaysia by designing a limited edition T-shirt, with the proceeds channelled to the organisation’s conservation effort. Delwin has also collaborated with SEGI University to release a video and talk in conjunction with World Autism Awareness Day 2016.
Recently, Delwin's drawings were chosen to be displayed in Chef Nic, a Chinese food travelogue show starring Hong Kong actor Nicholas Tse. Delwin’s drawings, with an African theme, were enlarged and fitted as the backdrop of the show’s prop restaurant. “This opportunity would not have been possible had it not been for Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh and her sister-in-law, Megan Fong, who introduced Delwin’s artwork to the show’s producers,” Lawrence says.
In solidarity with all the families still struggling, Delwin’s achievements are not his alone, but the autism community’s too. “Each exhibition, show and collaboration is a victory for a community too often unspoken of. My family was given gifts that we have to share; the more the community knows about Delwin, the more people know about autism.”
The Cheahs continue to hone Delwin’s artistic talent, and have been finding out about his other gifts. “Delwin loves to read and swim. He can read hundreds of animal magazines and books, and even does searches on the internet. Lately, he has developed an inclination towards sculpturing using Blu-Tac. He sticks his craftsmanship all over his desk and mostly in the car,” Lawrence says with a laugh.
Perhaps animal figurines can be another outlet for Delwin. But we will have to wait and see. As we may have learned from the Cheahs, patience is a virtue.
Emilia Ismail is a freelance writer. She blogs at www.sundayyellowcardigan. blogspot.com.