Neuro-divergent youth and their families need support of society

Dharshini (right) says that sports like running has helped her daughter Nandini become more independent and improve in her overall coordination. Photos: The Star/Azhar Mahfof

Dharshini Ganeson, 64, believes that it’s important for neuro-divergent children and their families to get support in order to have a meaningful life.

“Special children must have someplace where they can find friends and where their parents can also find support,” says the public relations consultant.

Dharshini is mother to Nandini, who is Dyspraxic, which mean she has difficulty with balancing, walking and other movements.

“Since Nandini was 10 years old, I’ve been bringing her for running, walking, and other sports activities. This has helped in her overall ability to walk, run and do things independently,” she says.

Dharshini reveals that whenever her daughter goes trekking and sees hills, mountains or rivers, she tends to feel fearful.

“But if you train individuals like her regularly and consistently, it’s possible for them to build muscle tone, improve their balance, and learn to walk properly,” she says.

She enrolled Nandini in the SpecialMe.MY Run Club so that she could befriend people like herself as well as others in the community.

Doing sports as a daily or weekly activity is good for people – whether neuro-divergent or not – especially as they get older because their metabolism slows down, says Dharshini.

Nandini has improved in her running, progressing from 5km, and is now slowly building up to 10km, and later will do 21km, she adds.

Mother and son teams.Mother and son teams.Besides the in-person training sessions, the run club also has a WhatsApp chatgroup where members can interact, learn from each other, share their progress, and support one another.

Dharshini highlights that neuro-divergent individuals and their parents tend to get left out in society.

“Whenever I see anyone with a special child, I’ll usually try to have a chat with them. This makes them feel included, and that’s how it should be because they’re part of society too, and should be integrated into the community,” she says.

“Parents of special children should bring them out for activities in the community to have more exposure to the world around them. If they just stay home, they’ll be alone and won’t interact with others,” she adds.

Dharshini who has another son and daughter – both living overseas – says it’s important for neuro-divergent children to learn to be independent.

“Parents will grow older, siblings might get married and move away, so their family members might not be around forever to jaga (look after) them. As such, they’ve to find their own group of friends, and learn to be independent,” she says.

Quality of life

Being part of a support group with likeminded people and common interests is important for families with special needs children, says writer Ivy Soon, 52,

Soon is mother to 20-year-old Caitlin Lee, who has autism.

Since Caitlin was 10 years old, she hikes, swims and does gym, because her family believes “it’s good for her to be active and healthy”.

“As regular, neurotypical individuals, we often take a lot for granted – we can just go out and run by ourselves. But with the neuro-divergent, they need structure and guidance, someone needs to bring them for the run and make sure they’re safe,” she says.

This is why Soon and Caitlin joined the SpecialMe.MY Run Club.

“My daughter likes to run, but I’m not a runner. With this run club, we’re with a group of people who know how to run, and we’re able to do it together regularly,” says Soon. “We can also motivate one another as a group.”

“As neuro-divergent individuals grow older, it’s important for them to be active. If they just stay home and are sedentary, they might become more susceptible to ill health.

“When a neuro-divergent person is active, they’ll have a better quality of life. It’s good for their mental health, there are people for them to interact with and they can make friends, she adds.

Lok (right), the oldest member of the run club, and her daughter Wong.Lok (right), the oldest member of the run club, and her daughter Wong.

Soon also discovered that her daughter’s walking gait wasn’t correct and her posture had to be corrected before she could run properly.

“As non-runners, we wouldn’t realise this, but with the trainers at the run club, the issue can be identified and corrected,” she adds.

“Neuro-divergent individuals are human like everyone else and shouldn’t be marginalised. Rather, they should be given the same opportunities as everyone else,” says Soon. “They’re not asking for a lot, just acceptance, respect, and opportunities.”

Neuro-divergent individuals face many challenges. They might find it difficult to take part in team sports with complicated rules and scoring systems, those requiring reciprocal actions or mastery of certain equipment.

“However, physically, they’re alright, so activities like hiking, running, swimming and gym are good for them,” she says.

She adds that parents need to get over their anxieties about their special children.

“You might be worried about them falling if you bring them hiking. But the child will learn as he goes along. His coordination will improve, and he’ll be able to manage his tiredness better.”

It also takes time and effort to be integrated into society.

“It all starts with how you treat your child. People will take the cue from you. If you treat your child like he’s capable, and not as somebody who should be sidelined, then other people will also follow suit,” says Soon.

Cultivating good habits

Yap and his mother Chang.Yap and his mother Chang.Businesswoman Alice Chang Mun Pei, 49, is mother to Yap Jian Qian, 20, who has cerebral palsy, global delayed development (GDD) and mild autism.

“We joined the run club because I wanted my son to be healthy, get to know more friends, and cultivate good lifelong habits,” says Chang.

Since then, there has been improvement in his health and posture. Yap is now able to walk and run by himself, and he will be taking part in the 10km run for SCSM 2022, shares the proud mother.

“Before this, I would have to hold his hand and make him walk or run. Now, his posture has improved and he’s more independent.

Lok Oi Lin, is mother to Wong Suet Ming, a 35-year-old with a learning disability.

“My daughter has improved since joining the run club. Initially, she couldn’t run very fast, but now, she’s able to, and independently as well.

“Physically, she has become healthier, fitter, and lost weight,” says Lok, who at 77, is the oldest member in the run club.

“Joining the run club is good for both of us, and not just for our health. She gets to know more friends, and so do I – a support group of likeminded parents,” she says.

Both mother and daughter will be doing the 10km run in SCSM 2022.

“My advice to parents of special youth is to bring them out more often to enjoy such activities. They will gain more exposure, become more confident, and get to know more friends,” she concludes.

More info: SpecialMe.MY Run Club Facebook

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