International Women's Day: Bosses, colleagues rallied around her when her son was found to have autism

Ms Serene Chew credits her bosses and colleagues for being empathetic and giving her time off for visits to doctors and therapy sessions for her autistic son. PHOTO: SERENE CHEW

SINGAPORE - Ms Serene Chew's toddler stopped eating during the pandemic. At first, she thought it was because he missed their helper, who left Singapore for family reasons in August 2020.

Her son refused to be cared for by their new helper. He rejected meals lovingly prepared by her husband and drank only milk. The desperate parents scrambled to find anything that he was willing to eat - waffles, but only from a certain bakery. Eggs, but only sous vide. Now four, his diet is mainly bread-based, but again, only one type of bread.

They visited several doctors and specialists, but could not find closure. "They kept telling us that my son looks fine,"she recalls.

She began noticing that her toddler, whom she declines to name, would line things up in orderly rows in the fridge. He began vomiting whenever he experienced "big emotions", whether positive or negative.

Just getting him out of the house was an unpredictable affair as he would vomit on his shoes or uniform, leaving his frustrated parents rushing to clean him up before they could go to work.

He had a good relationship with his grandparents, but refused their care, leaving Ms Chew's husband, Jasper, as the main caregiver. They also have a daughter aged 11.

It was only in the middle of last year that they found out their son has high-functioning autism.

Ms Chew, 32, pauses to compose her feelings, then continues: "It was overwhelming. There was a lot of guilt, there were a lot of emotions. There was a lot of complexity that I just couldn't wrap my head around."

At the same time, her work at DBS was a "crazy period" as her department supports the bank in carrying out Covid-19 safety measures, which were in constant flux.

The assistant vice-president of corporate real estate strategy and administration credits her bosses and colleagues for being empathetic and giving her time off for visits to doctors and therapy sessions for her son.

She has been working in hybrid mode since early 2020, before the circuit breaker.

"My boss and colleagues are the ones who keep reminding me, 'Serene, you're human, you need to take time off, I got it covered'," says the self-confessed workaholic, who is in a high potential programme at the bank.

Such is the camaraderie at work that she feels comfortable venting about challenges and celebrating her son's small wins with them. "I can tell from their actions that they have been listening intently," she says.

She was touched to receive marine creature-themed toys during gift exchanges as her son is obsessed with marine life.

Her colleagues engage him on the topic whenever he appears onscreen during online work meetings.

Ms Chew says she is not worried about family life affecting her career progression. "I'm in a good place with a very good employer who cares for my growth," she says.

As much as her workplace has embraced her situation, she wishes that society would embrace her son for his uniqueness. Far too often, well-meaning people have told her he will "grow out of it", even though there is no cure for autism.

She speaks excitedly about how she has learnt to communicate better because he does not comprehend social cues. "I realise the beauty of the world through his eyes."

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