S'porean mum cares for 7 special needs kids, teaches them to be 'future-ready'

"We accept and embrace our children for who they are, not for who they are supposed to be," Tahirah Mohamed, 45.

Alfie Kwa | May 01, 2022, 01:08 PM

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“That’s quite a feat,” I thought to myself as I was preparing for my chat with Tahirah Mohamed.

It's a feat not only because she's a mother to a brood of nine.

You see, seven of Tahirah's nine kids have special needs, namely autism spectrum disorder (ASD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), global developmental delay (GDD) and depression.

The 45-year-old is a full-time caregiver to her nine kids, aged between three and 21 years old.

For the past 12 years, she’s been learning more about her kids’ conditions, ever since her eldest son was diagnosed with ASD when he was nine.

Over the years, the family “grieved” each time another kid got diagnosed with a special needs condition.

It is, without a doubt, difficult for a parent to deal with multiple special needs diagnoses, but with every curveball that came her way, Tahirah focused on how best to take care of her family.

Tahirah sees herself as the captain of her ship – with the ship being her family. She explained what it's like to be in her shoes:

“It's like you’re the captain of your own ship, and then you have a sail up. You want to reach point A to point B, and then suddenly there's a gush of wind. The gush of wind actually change your course of direction. So what must you do? You still have to move to your point B. You have to change your sail and that’s what I did.”

The family

Image courtesy of Tahirah Mohamed.

Tahirah and her husband never expected to have nine kids and definitely did not expect that their kids would have special needs.

Unaware of special needs in the past, she and her husband didn’t think too much about incidences when her eldest son, Huzaifah, acted out in school. All she could do was sit him down and try to talk to him about it.

It wasn't until he had a public meltdown in a crowded MRT train that Tahirah started becoming concerned.

He was about eight years old at the time and as they were riding on the train, ​​he started panicking and yelling, attracting stares from other commuters.

After that incident, she decided to take him to see a specialist and that’s when he was diagnosed with ASD.

ASD, which is a neurological and developmental disorder, affects how people like Huzaifah interact, communicate, learn, and behave.

Huzaifah was also diagnosed with depression and OCD over the years.

Depression negatively affects how one feels, thinks and acts while OCD causes one to become fixated with certain compulsions like negative thoughts, sensations, or actions.

Tahirah’s second and fourth children, Mu'az (18) and Rumaisa (13) were also diagnosed with ADHD. Her fifth child, Talhah (10), was diagnosed with ASD.

Because of ADHD, Mu'az and Rumaisa have differences in brain activity which affects their attention, ability to sit still, and self-control.

Her eight-year-old twins, Ziyad and Zayid, and four-year-old son, Abbas, were also found to have global developmental delay (GDD).

Kids who are diagnosed with GDD are considered to have significantly lower intellectual functioning than their peers.

Duties of a caregiver and mother

Image courtesy of Tahirah Mohamed.

With seven children with special needs, Tahirah devotes her days to taking care of her kids.

Her days are spent tutoring her kids in subjects she’s more familiar with like English or Mathematics, or she’d be out volunteering as a parent advocate with SPD. 

In particular, Tahirah makes sure that her kids are able to adapt to their school environment. She makes it a point to build good relationships with her kids’ teachers and conveys their needs to them.

“It’s open communication with the teachers,” she said.

She sends a copy of her kids’ diagnosis to their teachers and discusses with them the best way to engage her kids.

Importantly, she wants her children to be “self-reliant and future-ready”.

“When the day comes when they can't rely on me anymore or I have gone to meet my Creator, I know I left my children with skills that may help them ease the stress, anxiety and grief they may be going through.”

From the age of two, the kids will start helping out with some household chores like wiping down the table after a meal. Then when they get a little older they’ll be tasked with more and more household chores.

By 12, they’d learned to do grocery shopping and learned how to spend money.

“In the process, doing chores teaches my children valuable life skills. It aids in their development, expands empathy, responsibility and self-discipline. It also boosts their self-esteem, gains good working habits, how to communicate well, increases confidence in leadership and manages money better.”

As Tahirah spoke about her tasks as a mother and caregiver, it appeared like she had everything under control.

Well, she does on most days. But, some days, it can be overwhelming.

Image courtesy of Tahirah Mohamed.

Tahirah recalled a prolonged period when she experienced “caregiver burnout”.

In the later part of 2017, she was mourning the loss of her father, uncle, cousin and mother-in-law who had recently passed.

Piled on top of that grief, Talhah's kindergarten had advised Tahirah to withdraw him from the preschool. He was subsequently diagnosed with ASD.

At that point, she wasn’t taking the best care of herself.

When special education schools were having their open houses a couple of months later in 2018, she walked in the scorching hot sun over a few days to check out the programs for Talhah.

“I was also fasting and breastfeeding my eighth child.”

And after heading to the open houses, she headed home to take care of the rest of her kids.

Before she knew it, the strain took a toll on her physically and mentally, and she fell severely ill, burning up with a fever which would not subside.

Her husband rushed her to the hospital where doctors found that she was dehydrated and had two kidney stones that were close to an inch in diameter.

That was one of the worst experiences she’d ever faced.

Understanding love languages

Tahirah and her husband. Image courtesy of Tahirah Mohamed.

The unfortunate incident made her realise that building a formidable support system at home is necessary.

As a caregiver, she needs to “receive” support from her family too. She tells her family members what support she needs by letting them know what her top three love languages are.

Love languages show couples -- or in this case, family members -- how best each party receives love.

“My top three love languages are physical touch, act of service and quality time.”

The kids can express their love for their mother by giving her a hug. A hug, in this case, shows Tahirah how much they appreciate what she’s done for her.

“Caregiver burnout is real,” Tahirah added. She often practices self-care, giving herself time off to relax when she’s feeling overwhelmed.

When she is not occupied with caring for her children, Tahirah spends her downtime with her husband.

They go on dates once or twice a week and spend quality time over tea time chats and grocery shopping. This is a time she truly treasures as it keeps their relationship strong.

“The children need to know that their parents are going strong,” Tahirah said. She also noted that families with special needs kids face a higher rate of divorce.

She also memorised all her kids’ top three love languages.

For instance, because of his OCD,  her eldest son always asks for reassurance. OCD, said Tahirah, is the "enemy inside my child's mind" and it affects him daily.

Huzaifah would ask:

Umi, can you see the dog across the block? Is that a man holding a dog? Umi, do you think this wall is clean?”

So as her way of assuring him, Tahirah would constantly talk to him and affirm that everything is okay.

Regrets? No

Image courtesy of Tahirah Mohamed.

Tahirah spoke about her kids and their conditions for the majority of our conversation. Needless to say, she is very proficient in a wide array of diagnoses.

But she is constantly learning and relearning. Each time she received a new diagnosis, she "hit the books”.

“Every time one child gets diagnosed with something, my husband and I love to hit the library to gather more knowledge about the diagnosis that our children received.”

She often talks to social workers and psychologists to get a better understanding of her kids’ special needs.

While she looks like she manages her family well, it’s undeniable that taking care of seven special needs kids is a tough job.

And Tahirah agreed.

So why did she continue to have more children, especially at her age?

“We are a very fertile couple,” she admitted. However, Tahirah had a tubal ligation in 2019 and her husband plans on getting a vasectomy soon.

But she has no regrets about growing her family of 11 and she's extremely proud of all her kids and embraces their conditions.

"I would never be ashamed of my children regardless...We accept and embrace our children for who they are, not for who they are supposed to be."

And as this captain of the ship navigates through choppy waters, I cannot help but marvel at how she adapts fearlessly to the challenges before her, adjusting her "sail" to get her towards point B – a strong, happy family unit.

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Quotes were edited for clarity. Top images courtesy of Tahirah Mohamed.