Mum of nine: Six of her kids have special needs

Not ashamed of her special needs kids

MIGHTY MUMS: Caring for children with special needs; raising a family amid drug addiction; and battling bankruptcy and illness. It's all in a day's work for these super mums. This Mother's Day, raise a glass to these mothers and yours.; Madam Tahirah Mohamed taps her experience as a mother of children with special needs to be an advocate for inclusivity

Madam Tahirah Mohamed (front, holding her youngest child Zinnirah, two) and her husband, Mr Noor Irwan Rashid, with their children (back row from far left) Muhammad Huzaifah, 20, Muhammad 'Ammar, 15, Muhammad Mu'az, 17, Muhammad Talhah, nine, Rumaisa
Madam Tahirah Mohamed (front, holding her youngest child Zinnirah, two) and her husband, Mr Noor Irwan Rashid, with their children (back row from far left) Muhammad Huzaifah, 20, Muhammad 'Ammar, 15, Muhammad Mu'az, 17, Muhammad Talhah, nine, Rumaisa, 12, Muhammad Ziyad, seven, Muhammad Zayid, seven, and Muhammad 'Abbas, four. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

With nine children aged two to 20, Madam Tahirah Mohamed, 44, has plenty on her plate by any measure of motherhood.

What makes her journey more remarkable is that six of her kids have special needs, and they have inspired the stay-at-home mother to become an articulate advocate for inclusivity.

Her first and fifth children - Muhammad Huzaifah, 20, and Muhammad Talhah, nine - have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), while second child, Muhammad Mu'az, 17, has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Huzaifah also has obsessive compulsive disorder.

Her sixth to eighth kids - twins Muhammad Ziyad and Muhammad Zayid, seven, and four-year-old Muhammad 'Abbas - suffer from global development delay. This is an umbrella term that refers to significant delays in one or more areas of emotional, mental or physical growth.

Meeting them for the first time, one cannot help but be impressed by how organised and cohesive the family is.

The older children instinctively pair up with their younger siblings during the trek across Tampines Central to find a better photo spot for this article, and it turns out that they have been trained to operate on a buddy system.

Posing at an iconic mangosteen-themed playground, the kids are cooperative and well behaved, even under the scorching sun at noon during the month of Ramadan.

After the shoot, Talhah rushes to this reporter and the photographer with a hug and an effusive "thank you".

Firstborn Huzaifah was nine when his unpredictable meltdowns were finally diagnosed as high-functioning ASD, or what was formerly known as Asperger's syndrome.

Her initial dreams for her son evaporated and "we found ourselves grieving", says Madam Tahirah, who quit her job as an administrator in 2003 when her second child, Mu'az, was born.

Her husband Noor Irwan Rashid, 44, works as a facilities manager in a postal company.

To temper their anxiety, the couple, who are avid readers, borrowed books on autism, which provided "relief" and closure.

"Then it was time for us to stand up and bounce back quickly to help our son. I have to help myself first before I can help my child," she says.

They did the same when their other kids were diagnosed with the various conditions.

They also like reading self-help books such as Richard Carlson's Don't Sweat The Small Stuff series to put themselves in a positive frame of mind.

"I believe children are actually our best teachers. No matter what you want to do, you are forced to learn how to extend your patience, take a step back and look at the bigger picture," she says.

The couple believe in empowering their kids with life skills, so they learn to help themselves from an early age and can do chores independently.

By age seven, each kid knows how to iron his or her school uniform, and even two-year-old Zinnirah has started clearing her plate after meals.

"If you don't equip your children with skills, they may not feel worthy. It can also be therapeutic for them, like when Huzaifah learnt to cook nasi goreng and said, 'I feel much better.'

"It's the process of starting from nothing to making something and you serve it to your whole family," she says.

Trips to favourite haunts like Jewel Changi Airport and the beach via public transport may seem like a logistical challenge, but Madam Tahirah has a well-honed plan, even if she has to lead her brood alone.

She briefs the older children on safety precautions - such as minding the gap at the MRT platform - who then instruct the younger ones.

In between her many daily chores - she says she clocks about 10,000 steps a day - she treasures "bite-size self-care" moments, from a slow walk in her neighbourhood park to taking her time while shopping for groceries.

As the main caregiver who fetches her kids to and from school and intervention centres run by charities such as SPD and Rainbow Centre, she is the one who is more exposed to "all the rude stares" from strangers.

Instead of ignoring them, she uses these encounters to educate them about her children's "invisible disorders".

"I take it as an opportunity to share that my son has this and this. He's born with it, he's wired differently," says Madam Tahirah, whose 67-year-old mother helps look after her kids when she has to run errands.

The family, who live in a four-room Housing Board flat, have no helper.

She and her husband have also shared their experiences with other parents on various platforms, such as support groups, as a way to "give back".

"There are many parents who have children with special needs, but not many are willing to be vulnerable and put themselves out there," she says.

Last month, they were invited to share their thoughts in a webinar for parents with babies and pre-schoolers, the first in a series of government-initiated conversations on the theme of Building A Singapore That Is Made For Families.

Ms Indranee Rajah, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and Second Minister for Finance and National Development, led the event.

Madam Tahirah also uses her Facebook page as an advocacy platform, posting nuggets of information and inspiring messages about special needs and mental health, such as pointing out that an autistic meltdown is not a typical temper tantrum or the result of bad parenting.

"Let's move on from awareness to acceptance," she says.

Her openness has not always been well-received, with some members of her extended family asking her why she is not ashamed about sharing her experiences.

"Why should I feel ashamed? I'm talking about my loved ones. It's also part of my healing," she says.

"It's how I process the sadness and whatever we went through as a family. Through sharing, people show you empathy and kindness, and you draw strength from there."

Her inner strength is something eldest son Huzaifah, who is studying green building and sustainability at a polytechnic, pays tribute to. Asked what he loves about his mother, he says immediately: "Her sacrifice."

He adds: "She tries her best to create time for every child to make sure we are doing okay."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 09, 2021, with the headline Not ashamed of her special needs kids. Subscribe