Like clockwork, 19-year-old Sarah arrives home every day at 4.30pm, wolfs down an early, home-cooked dinner, and zips out again.
The teenager, who has moderate to severe autism, will be out until around 10pm — walking about in malls. She would only return to her paternal grandparents’ Bukit Batok home at around midnight.
Unlike other special-needs children, who spend their days at Special Education (Sped) schools or activity centres, Sarah — whose full name cannot be revealed at her family’s request — has been hanging out at shopping malls from the age of 10.
Her grandparents have been her main caretakers since she was about six years old.
She was left to do as she wished because her grandparents did not know how to care for a special-needs child, even though they worry about her safety when she is out and about.
“It’s not easy for us to take care of her,” Sarah’s grandmother Madam Maimunah, 66, said in Malay.
Her plight came to the attention of Sun-Dac, a day activity centre for persons with disabilities (PWDs) in February 2015, when her father — who works as a delivery driver — sought the help of SG Enable, an agency that supports the special-needs community.
He wanted the agency to commit Sarah to a residential home to curb her wandering ways.
Concerned that such an arrangement would do the teenager more harm than good, SG Enable sought Sun-Dac’s help to see if it could enrol her in a day programme instead, Sun-Dac’s executive director Peng Hai Ying told TODAY.
Attempts to send Sarah to the day activity centre at Choa Chu Kang Central proved to be harder than they thought, for she simply refused to go.
Noticing that Sarah’s regular haunt was Lot One shopping centre, Ms Peng and the centre’s staff members teamed up with employees at the mall’s retailers to ensure that she would not come to harm.
A sales associate at an electronics retailer, who wanted to be known as Mr Tan, said that staff members at the store knew she liked to play with the tablets and mobile phones at the store, so they would download educational games and music apps for her to keep her engaged.
Even the regulars at the mall noticed Sarah wandering around, sometimes scrounging for leftover food at fast-food outlets or the food court, and they started watching out for her.
One such person was environmental officer Madam Nor Azizah, 46. Her curiosity was piqued when she spotted this “little girl” wandering around KFC and McDonald’s.
After learning about her situation from a cleaner, and stirred by a sense of pity, Madam Azizah and her friends would chip in to buy Sarah a meal or two, and would even watch out for any strangers who approach her.
It took Sun-Dac about half a year to build rapport with the teenager through this network of “guardian angels”, to convince her to spend time at the activity centre.
At one stage, the voluntary welfare organisation (VWO) even gathered about 20 of the mall’s staff members to form a “human chain”, leading from the mall’s exit to Sun-Dac’s entrance, to encourage Sarah to follow their lead.
Still, it was not until early April last year that they established her firmly to a routine at the centre.
Now, she goes to Sun-Dac five days a week, from 9am to 3.30pm.
There, she is taught daily living and community living skills, such as concepts of money and time, letters of the alphabet and numbers, preparing simple meals, protecting herself, and learning the difference between a “good touch” and a “bad touch”.
Her family forks out S$30 a month for her transport costs, an expense that strains their budget.
Sarah continues to wander, and has taken to exploring malls further afield, as far as Sembawang Shopping Centre, Northpoint Shopping Centre and Causeway Point, after she gets home from the activity centre.
Trailing her for a day on her visit to Causeway Point, TODAY observed her spending a good two to three hours in a store, entertaining herself with YouTube videos playing on the iPads on display, before she zipped over to a shop, where she received a free sample scoop of ice cream.
A part-time staff member who wanted to be known as Ms Lee, 22, said that Sarah is a familiar face, and they have grown used to dishing out free ice cream as their small way of extending help.
She added that some customers have been known to treat Sarah to waffles, topped with her favourite ice cream flavours.
On the other hand, her grandparents and staff members at Sun-Dac are still “cracking their heads” to see how to stop her from going to the malls, and to have her do more “meaningful and engaging activities”.
The end goal is to train Sarah to be independent in future, and perhaps get a job to support herself, Ms Peng said.
Urging more like-minded “angels” to step up to look out for clients such as Sarah, Ms Peng said: “Everyone always talks about social inclusion for persons with disabilities, but how (do you do so)? You keep talking about education, bringing them out, but it tends to be very custodial … We don’t engage with those people.”
What the community can do — be it neighbours or friends — is to help integrate such persons with disabilities into the community, instead of always relying on VWOs to provide them the service, or keeping them “locked up within those four walls”, she added.
Link to original article: http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/guardian-angels-watch-over-autistic-teen-public