1. Set up AAS in 1992 with a group of parents after finding local facilities and support networks lacking.
2. AAS now has over 200 employees operating five venues.
3. Awarded a Public Service Medal at last year’s National Day Awards.
4. Advocates the importance and urgency of setting up residential homes for adults with autism.
5. MD of multi-family office Abacus Assets Advisors.
Meeting Ho Swee Huat for the first time at his office on Robinson Road, you get the sense of having stepped into a private banking commercial. The managing director of multi-family office Abacus Assets Advisors greets you with a disarming smile, effusing warmth from every pore of his being.
The 62-year-old has a quiet strength that has carried him through the last 24 years of labouring for a cause dear to his heart: autism. With a group of other parents, Ho set up the Autism Association (Singapore) (AAS) in 1992 after finding local educational facilities and support networks lacking.
You see, his firstborn was diagnosed with a severe form of the condition in the 1980s. “Statistics show that more males are diagnosed with autism, so you could say autism is a most explicit display of maleness,” he says with a chuckle.
He jokes about it now, but as one can imagine, optimism was difficult to exhibit in those early years when he and his wife first found out about their son’s condition. “Our first question was, ‘When will he overcome this?’ Of course (the paediatrician) said that there was no cure. We didn’t believe him. I don’t think many parents would. That was followed by many years of us trying to seek a cure for him.”
At the time, understanding of autism was still in its infancy. The AAS grew from an outfit run entirely by parent volunteers into what it is today: a progressive organisation that has been instrumental in advancing the landscape of autistic education and caregiving. It has more than 200 paid employees operating two Eden Children’s Centres, one Eden School, and two adult Eden Centres that provide daycare.
Together, these five venues cater to (almost) the complete gamut of autism: from mild to severe cases, and sufferers from the age of two to 55.
“What we did in the first 10 to 15 years was try to fill in the gaps. We started the first Children’s Centre because kids couldn’t go to school until they were six. So the centre catered to those aged two to six. We didn’t want to lose those four years. An existing Margaret Drive School (today Rainbow Centre) catered to those up to the age of 12. So we set up a youth centre (which was later converted into a centre for adults) for those aged 12 to 18.
“Setting up Singapore Autism School (in 2005) was challenging because I had never started a school before! I travel a lot, about 25 times a year, for my advisory work so I was concerned about whether we could pull it off.”
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In 2009, he called upon Denise Phua, Member of Parliament for Jalan Besar and president of the Autism Resource Centre (ARC), for a potential collaboration, and both organisations have worked closely ever since. Ho says the two organisations complement each other, with the ARC serving the mildly autistic while the AAS caters to those who are moderately to severely autistic.
In April last year, AAS, ARC, Rainbow Centre Singapore and St Andrew’s Autism Centre formed the Autism Network Singapore, which aims to better address issues like early intervention, lifelong education and job placement.
Still, challenges remain. AAS’ adult centres require more funding as each runs up an annual deficit of $450,000, even after government grants and centre fees are taken into account. Then there is the question of providing round-the-clock care for the adults, particularly those with moderate to severe autism.
“We need residential homes. We haven’t found a model that’s sustainable, but it’s absolutely critical. I cannot emphasise that enough. It would require a lot of government support. We haven’t had the courage to start something yet, because it has to be sustainable on two fronts: staffing and finance.”
“We need residential homes. We haven’t found a model that’s sustainable, but it’s absolutely critical.
Last year, Ho was conferred a Public Service Medal at the National Day Awards in recognition of his dedication and contributions to the autistic community.
“I was a bit embarrassed!” he says with a chuckle. “Don’t misunderstand. It’s not false modesty. I told the AAS that I was receiving it on its behalf, because no one person can make such a huge difference.”
Despite the organisation’s growth, Ho, ever the realist, says: “I don’t think the job is ever done!”
In 60 Seconds
The one thing I hope the next generation can learn is: To do volunteer work. If you feel called, don’t wait until you have time. You will never have time unless it is built into your schedule, much like exercise. And do it because it is the right thing to do, not for possible recognition. Recognition, if any, is incidental.
The historical period that interests me the most is: The Long March by the Red Army and its supporters in China. Not the politics or the ideology, but the incredible tale of human determination and endurance, individual sacrifices (like women who gave away babies so they can continue with the march shortly after giving birth), and heroism.
The three apps I can’t live without are: None. I predate them and survived before they were invented. Besides, these days each app has many alternatives.