Autism awareness: Clement masters art of expression

Autistic artist Clement Ooi poses with his painting. Photo: The Star/Filepic

From a very young age, Clement Ooi has loved to doodle complicated designs and often keeps himself occupied for hours, just doodling. When he was five, his parents started looking for an art teacher for him. The teacher, who was impressed by the designs that he drew, said he could develop further.

Over the years, Clement has learnt and improved, and has developed into a “pretty good artist”, says his father Ooi Bee Lam.

“Most of Clement’s paintings are done in acrylic on canvas. His forte is in drawing flowers and he’s able to draw them live, ” adds his mother, Annie Kam.

“We often got him different types of flowers from our garden or even bought them from florists for him to draw, ” she adds.

“He also loves to paint cartoons, and often creates colourful ones on small square cards having all sort of adventures, and they are part of his art collection, ” she says.

But Clement, now 32, is no ordinary artist, he’s autistic.

His art was first exhibited at the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur in 2003, in a joint exhibition with other artists.

Clement then had a solo exhibition at a gallery in 2007, and since then, he’s participated in many exhibitions.

He has also won several international awards under the Brian Ayers Memorial exhibition in North Carolina in the United States, including Recognition Award for Exceptional Artistic Ability in 2005, Invitation Award for Live Auction in 2006, and Artistic Merit and Curator’s Purchase Award in 2008. His works have also been sold to collectors in Europe, Asia and the US.

Clement (right) and his father Ooi Bee Lam. Photo: Ooi Bee LamClement (right) and his father Ooi Bee Lam. Photo: Ooi Bee Lam

Currently, some of his pieces are on display at La Galerie du Monde in Petaling Jaya.

But things haven’t always been easy for him as an autistic artist. His parents reveal that as an autistic child, Clement was often hyperactive and disruptive, and it wasn’t easy to find an art teacher who was willing to teach him.

The early years

He was diagnosed as a hyperactive autistic child at the age of two.

“At that time, we didn’t realise how serious his condition was, ” says Ooi.

“Worried, we resolved to seek the right treatment and therapy to help our child, but the resources to help autistic children in Malaysia were rather limited 30 years ago, ” he says.

“The breakthrough came when we met the parent of an autistic child who was trying to engage a therapist from the US to train his child. Together with a group of other parents of autistic children, we shared the expenses to engage the therapist to come to Malaysia to help us, ” says Kam.

“After a thorough diagnosis, the therapist tailored a methodical programme for our son, ” she says.

“Training an autistic child can be tough, especially when he’s also hyperactive, ” says Ooi.

“It’s like running an endless marathon, requiring hours after hours of daily training, ” he says, adding that Kam had to resign her full time job just to focus on their son’s training. The programme took him four years to complete.

Clement has gone through Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), a therapy based on the science of learning and behaviour. It helps increase language and communication skills; improve attention, focus, social skills and memory; and decrease problematic behaviour.

Clement was non-verbal until the age of five. Now, he talks to his parents, not fluently but clear enough.

However, outside their home, he doesn’t talk nor express himself much. Because of his condition, he often isn’t able to express himself clearly and risks being misunderstood.

“He can’t explain, offer suggestions, or defend himself, ” says Kam.

“When he was younger, we faced a lot of challenges because of his hyperactive and unpredictable behaviour. We had to be extra vigilant when we brought him out, ” recounts Kam.

“In shopping centres, he might just disappear into the play section and we’d panic, trying to locate him. Also, he wouldn’t sit still so we’d have to take turns to have dinner when at a restaurant, ” she says.

“He has this mischievous streak that sometimes put us in awkward situations. Strangers often gave us strange looks because they thought we didn’t discipline our son, ” says Ooi.

“At that time, there was less awareness about autism so we had to carry cards with us to explain what autism is and why our child behaved as he did, ” he says.

Clement attended primary school until year six but had to be accompanied by his mother.

“I stayed around the school compound and occasionally checked on him. If a problem arised, the teacher would look for me, ” says Kam.

Realising that he couldn’t cope with his studies, they eventually enroled him in a home school in Petaling Jaya where he could study at his own pace.

Gradual progress

In deep concentration as he sketches out his next painting of dancing lady orchids. Photo: The Star/FilepicIn deep concentration as he sketches out his next painting of dancing lady orchids. Photo: The Star/Filepic

But Clement has progressed since then.

Since 2015, he has been working with United Voice, a self-advocacy society in Malaysia that comprises persons with learning disabilities. Their aim is to help reduce the isolation people with learning disabilities face, by providing them with the tools and experience to work, socialise, and take control of their lives so that they can contribute to society.

He works there twice a week, weaving Saori cloth, painting greeting cards, baking pastries, packaging, housekeeping, and other tasks assigned.

“Being in United Voice has taught him discipline and responsibility. He has to get up early, be at work on time, follow instructions, finish his job and get along with his colleagues, ” says Ooi.

“He’s learnt to relate to his colleagues and refers to them as his ‘UV friends’, and always looks forward to outings with them. Since working there, Clement has learnt to go for lunch by himself, order his own food and pay for it, ” he says.

“He’s also able to go into any mini market and buy the items that he needs. All these are essential living skills that he has learnt, skills that are difficult for an autistic person to acquire, ” he adds.

“At home, he’s quite independent and does most things by himself, except we haven’t taught him to cook yet, ” says Kam.

“He likes to read in the morning, especially storybooks and magazines like Young Scientists. Besides working on his paintings, he also practises the drums and ukelele. During his free time, he enjoys watching television (cartoons) and playing games, ” she says, adding that he also helps out at home, doing chores like folding clothes, ironing, and washing the dishes.

Although worried about the future, Clement’s parents are reassured because of their two daughters who care for the welfare of their brother and understand his condition.

“Our older daughter is already thinking about how she can take care of him in time to come, ” says Kam.

Ooi strongly believes that differently-abled persons, including those who are autistic, are an important part of society and play an important role in the community.

“To make the world a better place, I believe that everyone should have compassion, care and understanding towards all, especially the differently-abled. Schools can work with NGOs that help persons with disabilities, to conduct awareness programmes. And children should be taught from young how to treat others, especially those who are different, ” he concludes.

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