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.
Number of Sped schools that cater to autistic kids as well as those with other disabilities.
Number of autism-specific schools.
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.
MOE working to expand capacity
The Ministry of Education (MOE) is working with both voluntary welfare organisations and special education (Sped) schools to expand the overall capacity of schools offering autism- only programmes.
Responding to queries from The Straits Times, MOE yesterday said it is aware of a wait list at autism-only schools such as Pathlight School, Eden School and Saint Andrew's Autism School.
But while MOE continues to build up expertise catering to specific disability types, it urged parents to broaden their options and consider the 13 Sped schools that serve both kids with autism and those with other disabilities.
"Fixating only on a single school to the exclusion of other possible options will naturally lead to longer wait lists and longer waiting times for admission," it added.
There are about 2,750 children with moderate to severe autism in Sped schools, said MOE. They make up about 40 per cent of pupils in Sped schools, up from 32 per cent in 2011.
Autism-specific schools declined to share their wait lists. The last reported figures were in 2011, when Pathlight had 200 on its wait list; Eden had 150 and Saint Andrew's had 50 to 60. And although Eden, for example, has since increased its enrolment from 180 to 315, wait lists continue to exist. In contrast, other Sped schools like the four run by the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (Minds) have almost 300 vacancies.
Minds chief executive Keh Eng Song said training educators in other Sped schools to cater to autistic children could be a solution to address the demand. This is especially so given that from 2019, education will be made compulsory for special needs kids.
Added Pathlight co-founder Denise Phua: "We need to further innovate and ramp up the teacher training system to produce Sped educators who are more skilled in teaching children with autism and who have the heart to stay in this special sector. One of the ways we are experimenting is the use of technology to scale up training."
Kok Xing Hui and Priscilla Goy
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.
OTHER OPTIONS AVAILABLE
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.
MR MAULID, Nabil's father.
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.
- Additional reporting by Priscilla Goy
Boy with autism finally gets to go for lessons