Project Ocean Therapy: Autistic youths & their caregivers bond over stand-up paddling

Keep paddling on.

Irwan Shah | April 26, 2022, 11:21 AM

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The bright and sunny Saturday morning cast a warm welcome on a group of paddlers at Sentosa's Siloso Beach. Geared with Stand Up Paddle (SUP) boards and paddles, they entered the waters and waded out until they were almost waist-deep.

The paddlers climbed on their boards and readied themselves before launching out to sea. They were a colourful bunch and were definitely no ordinary sportsmen. They were in fact kids and teens who share a similar disability — autism.

Autism is a developmental condition that affects a person's perspective of the world around them. It has varying degrees of severity, meaning that no two affected individuals are the same. Autism is, unfortunately, a lifelong condition and there is currently no known cure.

And that's where Andrew Choo and Project Ocean Therapy (POT) come in.

Started in 2018, POT targets autistic children and youth and their family members. The programme is run by Choo's team from Grace Mission — a centre for autism and special needs — and is supported by SUP Ventures Singapore, a paddling club in Sentosa, and some volunteers.

As Choo explains, the members of POT strive to create an environment where these autistic children and youth can be nurtured to their fullest potential.  Every Saturday, the young ones connect themselves with water sports and nature.

Parents as caregivers

Stephanie Lee is the parent of Jonas Teo, a 19-year-old who has autism with low-support needs. Teo struggles with making friends and managing relationships with others.

Like many others with autism, Teo often fixates on matters that interest him. For example, Lee mentioned that Teo will listen to the same song on repeat for a long time and not get bored. He also expresses his unhappiness in meltdowns when things don't go his way.

Jonas Teo with his family. Photo by Stephanie Lee.

Before POT, Teo used to attend a similar programme at a local hydroponic farm. But back then, he used to be a lot more volatile and his mother constantly worried about how things might go awry when it came to his behaviour.

Lee told us that her heart used to thump whenever she sent him to the farm.

"Somedays, we are very worried and he can go there and kick a whole bunch of vegetables off the table ... The heart is always thumping. Am I going to have a call to pick him up early again?"

Today, Teo is less volatile partly because he switched to a new medication in August 2019, but that's not the whole story.

As a caregiver to an autistic teen, Lee would tell you that having the right medication is just one part of the support process. Another is to keep young ones engaged with the community through meaningful activities like stand-up paddling.

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That's where POT comes in. Teo's father, Teo Su Ming, is an avid water sports lover, often going on diving or snorkelling trips when he has the chance.

For Su Ming, POT is a great bonding activity for him and his son. The younger Teo also had the opportunity to make new friends with those involved in the programme, including the volunteers present there. It widened his social circle and as a result, became a meaningful activity for him.

Same same but different

Lim Wei Ping is a co-organiser of POT and a parent of Hong Yang Chong, an autistic 19-year-old with high-support needs. Chong has limited verbal communication ability and face challenges in doing tasks requiring fine motor skills. His neurological age is akin to a 4-year-old, requiring a caregiver 24/7. Lim and her husband tend to Chong's needs, such as showering and going to the loo.

When Choo pitched his idea about POT, Lim was keen to join with her family. However, she had some reservations in her mind regarding the SUP activity since she felt that it was more suited for those with low support needs. Still, she was open to her child trying something unconventional.

Hong Yang Chong with his family. Photo by Irwan Shah

"I was excited because it's something different. Because outside, when our partners offer us activities, sometimes it's the same thing, something conventional which I think that anybody else can do. This was really something very different ... So I said 'Okay, let's do it!', " elaborated Lim.

She added that the first session was interesting. There were those who could stand on the board by the end of the session. But it was a little bit more challenging for others, like Chong.

Some were afraid to step into the water. Others struggled to get up on their board. Some were simply  being distracted by their fixations, like scooping water repetitively.

Chong only managed to stand on the board after seven months. Though this seemed like a minor feat, it was in fact a big achievement for him and his family, considering that they had no expectations when he first joined the programme.

Lim said with a grin:

"He finally stood at seven months and we were like 'Wow!' It was like seeing those baby giraffes when they were born, trying to stand up and fall down. Then that moment when they stand up, they start walking...Everybody was wow-ed."

From that moment on, it wasn't too long before Chong could balance himself on his own board.

Slowly, Chong was thought how to balance on the board and was guided by the various instructors at POT — teaching him different techniques along the way.

A conducive environment to grow

The POT sessions allowed the parents to bond and grow into a tightly knit support system. In difficult times, they can confide in each other since these parents have gone through similar experiences.

"Sometimes, certain things are very personal and you don't want to broadcast. But here, it's a closer group, like Wei Ping and other parents," elaborated Lee. "We share some similarities too and it's easier for the parents to bond as well."

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For the 10 autistic children and youth who are currently actively enrolled in POT, it is clear that the programme offers an accepting and conducive environment to grow up in and benefit from.

The patience and attentiveness of the instructors and volunteers have been vital in helping autistic individuals in improving themselves. Those with low-support needs are able to make new friends.

Teo has grown well-acquainted with the instructors and volunteers there. He has grown to be particularly close to one volunteer, Niki.

She asked for Lee's permission to befriend Teo and they both exchanged contacts. Not long after that, they become buddies — often calling each other over the phone.

Their friendship progressed to playing several rounds of UNO online. However, Niki had to return to the United Kingdom for work. This didn't dampen Teo's spirit because by then, he was already good friends with the others as well.

POT is also a platform where autistic individuals can train physically, and in particular, develop their fine motor skills. Chong, has developed a marked improvement in his physique and strength.

Lee mentioned that Chong goes for basketball classes as well. Previously, he was not able to throw the ball into the hoop. Now, he is able to throw into it from a distance.

"When he throws (the ball) to me, I can feel the vibration through me when I catch it. So you definitely see those improvements (with SUP) translate to other parts of his life," said Lee.

SUP21km Autism Awareness Month

This coming Saturday, Choo and his partners will be organising SUP21km on Apr. 30, 2022 to raise funds to sustain programmes and create awareness among the general public about autism.

The 21km paddle was inspired by Wei Ping's son.

He started with no experience but now is able to paddle to about 5km weekly. Choo, the family members, and those from SUP Ventures will paddle for 21 kilometres throughout. The autistic children and youth will join them for the last 5km of the event.

Though sign-ups for SUP21km are currently closed, interested parties who wish to join POT can contact Choo via Facebook, or his colleague Willy on Instagram. You can also follow POT's developments here.

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Quotes were edited for clarity and grammar.

Top photo by Clare Yak (taken before the Covid-19 pandemic)