Malaysian Down syndrome youth discovers talent for baking, earns cash doing what he loves


Thanks to hours of vocational training, Gerard’s kitchen skills are improving. Photos: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

Gerard Veerasingam Nicholas is a picture of concentration as he meticulously rolls cookie dough, shapes them and carefully sprinkles them with peanuts before they go into the oven. The 18-year-old loves baking and although he takes his time doing the tasks assigned to him, the end results are always good.

His is supervised by his special education teacher, Jessie Lim, who isn’t at all concerned about Gerard’s slow pace in the kitchen.

The 18-year-old has Down syndrome (DS), and Lim is teaching him to cook and bake, to improve his fine motor skills.

“Gerard likes food and always looks forward to our baking and cooking lessons. Gerard enjoys scooping and rolling cookie dough. Even though he is slow, he does everything nicely and patiently, one by one,” says Lim, 47, beaming with pride.

Lim guiding Gerard as he goes about his tasks in the kitchen. Young adults with Down syndrome can learn skills and accomplish many things, with the right training and lots of encouragement.Lim guiding Gerard as he goes about his tasks in the kitchen. Young adults with Down syndrome can learn skills and accomplish many things, with the right training and lots of encouragement.

Lim and her partner Wong Pik Yee run Learn To Grow, a special needs therapy centre in Petaling Jaya. Here, they teach self-care skills and provides speech therapy to children and young adults with special needs. Their students include individuals with DS, autism and global developmental delay.

People with DS are born with an extra chromosome in their cells. Individuals with Down Syndrome possess varying degrees of cognitive delay, ranging from mild to severe. Some will grow up to live almost entirely independently, while others will need more help caring for themselves.

Cognitive abilities vary, but most people with DS have mild to moderate issues with reasoning and understanding. They will learn and pick up new skills their whole lives, but they may take longer to reach essential goals like walking, talking, and developing social skills.

DS is a lifelong condition and early intervention is vital for a full and meaningful life. World Down Syndrome Day is celebrated on March 21 to create awareness about the condition.

Lim’s goal is to teach Gerard skills so that he can earn an income and move towards independent living. Gerard has been with the centre since he was eight.

“There is a common misconception that people with DS have a physical disability. But in reality, each of them have different levels of intellectual challenges. These individuals can learn a skill and they can accomplish many things, with the right vocational training and lots of encouragement,” says Lim.

It means a lot for Fintan to see Gerard finally being able to move towards independence.It means a lot for Fintan to see Gerard finally being able to move towards independence.

Since 2018, Lim has been selling cookies and fruit cakes baked by her students with special needs. She created “Made by Special Hands”, a platform for her students with disabilities to explore pre-vocational and vocational skills, through which they can earn some money from the sales of their baked goods.

Gerard and his schoolmates have hands-on training in baking cakes, scones, buns and mooncakes.

Besides this, they are also taught to pack the baked goods themselves. And, of course, Lim trains them to tidy up and help wash the trays and utensils after each bake session.

Lim assesses each special needs individual’s skills and identifies suitable tasks for them.

“Over the years, we have been training Gerard in many areas such as in colouring, painting, and jewellery making. But we noticed he enjoys baking and light cooking like frying sausages and making fried rice. He is able to perform these tasks with supervision.”

As Gerard’s motor skills and coordination improved, Lim started giving him more tasks such as kneading dough, mixing ingredients and decorating cupcakes which also improve the strength and control of his hands and develop his visual skills.

“We assist them in some tasks like measuring the ingredients and operating the oven. Our students are not yet adept at handling the cake mixer or oven,” said Lim, who holds a Master’s degree in special education.

My hope for Gerard is that he will never lose that infectious smile that he has, always bringing joy to whoever he encounters, says Fintan (right) .My hope for Gerard is that he will never lose that infectious smile that he has, always bringing joy to whoever he encounters, says Fintan (right) .So far, Gerard has been baking cookies and cakes during festive seasons like Chinese New Year, Hari Raya and Christmas. On average, he earns about RM400 during each season.

“He feels very proud that he can successfully bake the cookies and cakes. He enjoys the compliments from his family members, teachers and customers.”

Lim is trying to make arrangements to sell her students’ baked goods at a convenience store near the centre.

“Right now, we bake festive treats, and we receive occasional custom orders. We hope that by collaborating with the convenience store, the children will have regular orders which would enable them to bake more regularly and further improve their baking skills.

“At the same time, they are also learning different skills like packing and delivering their baked goods to the store. Parents also feel a sense of hope and pride to see their special needs child can be part of the community,” said Lim.

Apple of his eye

Gerard’s father, businessman Fintan Romuald Inbaraj Nicholas, 52, is thrilled with his son’s developmental milestones.

“He’s improved over the years. There’s so much positive development in his growth and confidence. Not only can he cook and bake, he has learned basic skills like communicating and working on arts and crafts activities. He can do chores too,” said the father of two.

Fintan says that his son attends classes regularly at the centre and looks forward to the baking sessions.

“Gerard enjoys learning new skills, including mixing and weighing ingredients. Through these sessions, he also gets to interact with his friends there.”

It means a lot for Fintan to see Gerard becoming more and more independent.

“When Gerard was born, my wife and I were worried about his future. Back then, we had little knowledge about DS and needed to figure out what to expect or do for him. There were support groups, but we didn’t know much about them... it was all so new to us,” he shares.

Fintan and Yong were proud parents at Gerard's primary school graduation. Photo: Fintan NicholasFintan and Yong were proud parents at Gerard's primary school graduation. Photo: Fintan NicholasFintan still remembers how his wife, accountant Yong Kwa Juin, faced negative comments after Gerard was born.

“Sadly, people tend to be judgemental when you have a child with DS. People commented that she delivered a child with DS because she didn’t follow certain things correctly during her pregnancy.

“My wife went through a tough time. Many people aren’t aware that children are born with DS because they have an extra chromosome.”

Parenting a child with special needs is challenging, but Fintan and Yong have taken everything in their stride. Their first step was enrolling Gerard in early intervention programmes.

Gerard was a toddler when his parents signed him up for physiotherapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy at Kiwanis Down Syndrome Foundation.

When he turned seven, he went to SK Bukit Bandaraya in Bangsar under the Special Education Integration Programme. Since 2018, he has been attending classes twice at week at SM Bangsar in Kuala Lumpur. Three days a week, he’s at Learn To Grow.

Gerard (right) has the love and support from his parents and his older brother, Luke Bastianraj Nicholas. Photo: Fintan Nicholas Gerard (right) has the love and support from his parents and his older brother, Luke Bastianraj Nicholas. Photo: Fintan Nicholas

“We decided to send him to a government school so that he could interact with other, typical, students. I also want him to improve his communication skills, especially in Bahasa Malaysia,” says Fintan.

The devoted dad plans to open a cafe for his son in the future.

“The cafe will be supervised by people who have experience working with individuals with special needs. I’ll open it whenever Gerard is ready. He’s slowly getting there. I want to do it with a group of young adults with Down Syndrome and autism. It is my dream that these children be independent later on.”

Fintan says young adults with DS can contribute to society, no matter how small that role is.

“My advice to parents of special needs children is not to be disheartened. Instead, shower their children with love and grow together with them; seeking out what they like and nurturing it into a skill. I hope that Gerard will never lose his infectious smile and will keep bringing joy to everyone he meets.

“I hope he will go on baking delicious cookies and cakes that will give him the means to live as an independent adult and a useful member of society,” concludes Fintan.


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