Usually he plays nursery rhymes on YouTube, or the theme song to SpongeBob SquarePants. But in the past week, Aqil Nabil Maulid has been putting Majulah Singapura on repeat.

The national anthem, sung every day by children in schools here, was new and exciting to Nabil, who started school only on Jan 16 despite being eight years old.

Nabil, who has autism, had been on a wait list for Eden School, a special education (Sped) school run by the Autism Association, for a year.

There are three Sped schools here which are specifically for children with autism, and all have a wait list.

When his parents, who also have two daughters aged six and 11, were told on Jan 3 he would have to wait another year until he was nine, his mother cried and his frustrated father, Mr Maulid Mohammad, 34, took to Facebook to ask for help.

“Not asking for the moon. Just a place for my son in (an) autism Sped school!” wrote the sales merchandiser.
Eight-year-old Aqil Nabil Maulid smiling at his teacher, Hanysah Ismail. ST PHOTO: NIVASH JOYVIN

Mr Maulid’s post caught the attention of Mr Keh Eng Song, the chief executive of the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (Minds), which operates four schools, though none specifically for children with autism.

Mr Keh said: “I didn’t think it was good for Nabil to stay at home for so long, so I reached out to the father to offer an interim arrangement – if he would consider coming to Minds Woodlands Gardens School instead.”

That was how Nabil started school just over a week ago. And to his parents’ relief, he enjoyed it and was able to go on the school bus by himself the next day.

His mother, Mrs Namirah Md Najib, 33, a housewife, said: “Last Saturday, he woke up at 7am and got panicky when he saw that it was bright outside. He took his uniform and showed it to me. He’s so excited about school.”

Diagnosed with autism at age two and a half, Nabil attended the Early Intervention Programme for Infants & Children and preschool but, for a while, it looked as though further education would have to wait.

What his family went through illustrates the quandary faced by many parents of children with autism, who might not realise, or consider, there are other Sped schools which can fill the gap.

The increasing demand mirrors the rising incidence of this developmental condition in Singapore.

In 2015, there were 822 preschoolers diagnosed with autism under the Child Development Programme, which sees the majority of children with developmental problems here, compared to 361 in 2005.

Apart from the three autism-specific Sped schools, there are 13 other Sped schools which also cater to children with autism, along with those who have intellectual or physical disabilities of varying degrees.

Some of those, such as the four schools operated by Minds, have up to 300 vacancies.

“Parents have a perception that they are served better in autism-specific schools. But, in fact, other schools are building up their autism capabilities,” said Mrs Jenny Lai, principal of Eden School.

One such parent, Madam Aniza Mohamed, 43, also had her seven-year-old on the wait list at Eden School, until she saw Nabil’s story on Facebook and decided yesterday to enrol her son at Woodlands Gardens School as well.

In Nabil’s house, the mood is now very different. Each morning, Nabil wakes up at 5.30am, then reaches for his mother’s phone so he can listen to the national anthem. He plays the video several times, then has a shower and dresses for school.

When The Straits Times visited him yesterday, his spirits were not dampened by the rain.

While Nabil did not know the words to the national anthem, he stood next to his teacher and smiled as it played.

Mr Maulid is satisfied now that his son is in school. “Nabil deserves to have an education, just like other kids. We want to tell other parents on waiting lists that there are options they can consider,” he said.

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