Relationships, School

“I didn’t know I had autism; I had to Google it”: Caleb’s journey from being bullied to finding peace

By Christine Leow , 7 September 2022

Caleb Heng, 24, has always wanted to be a police officer.

He loves watching crime dramas, can identify all the weapons used in the shows, and is well-versed in crime scene procedures.

But because he has Asperger’s syndrome, Caleb has not been able to serve National Service (NS). He’s hugely disappointed, given that he also loves all things related to the army. 

“When I went to the zi char (cooked food) stall near my place, the uncle asked if I was a police officer. Maybe it’s the way I talk, my hairstyle, the way I carry myself …” Caleb said.

Asperger’s syndrome is a form of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The neurodevelopmental disorder is characterised by rigid and repetitive thinking patterns, difficulty relating to people socially, and highly-focused interests.

Taunted and teased

Growing up, there was little to make Caleb’s parents suspect that there was anything they should worry about.

But when Caleb went to primary school, he was badly bullied.

Classmates would take his belongings. Or they would ask him for money and not pay him back. They would name-call and tease him, which Caleb responded badly to. This in turn encouraged them to further taunt and torment him. It became a vicious cycle.

“Like many people on the autism spectrum, I used to get very fixated with one thing and one thing only. For me, it was police stuff,” Caleb said.

One day in Primary 5, Caleb opened his school bag and found that someone had scrawled all over his spelling book. He reacted so strongly to the vandalism that the discipline master had to be called in to manage the situation.

The repeated bullying, along with Caleb’s reactions, prompted his parents to get him tested. At the age of 11, he was officially diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.

Caleb was doing well academically, but he was having a hard time socially. This affected his self-esteem.

So his parents took him out from mainstream primary school and enrolled him in Pathlight School. It is the first autism-focused school in Singapore that teaches life skills while following the nation’s education curriculum. 

Caleb was doing well academically, but he was having a hard time socially. This affected his self-esteem.

“When I first entered Pathlight, I didn’t know I had autism. I had to Google it and then I realised I was on the spectrum,” said Caleb.

“I finally understood why I was having such a hard time socialising with people.”

Caleb’s experience at Pathlight School was transformative. He found acceptance among his classmates.

There were differences among the students as autism exists on a spectrum.

“No one person with autism is the same,” explained Caleb. “I may not look like I have autism and even those who look like me may have underlying differences from me”.

Undercover agent

Caleb, who has high-functioning autism, doesn’t fit into general perceptions of someone on the spectrum. He is articulate, relational, and able to look people in the eye. He also doesn’t have the outbursts or repetitive movements displayed by some with autism.

Caleb (right) puts in effort to make friends and relate to people with empathy.

This makes it difficult for neurotypical people to understand Caleb.

“As someone with high-functioning autism, I feel like an undercover agent at times because it’s easier for me to blend in with neurotypical people.

“But when people find out about my autistic side, it can be a double-edged sword,” he shared. “It’s worse when I try to explain my autism symptoms. Some may say I am making excuses for myself. That’s the biggest frustration.”

Caleb finds it difficult sometimes to explain to neurotypical persons why someone on the autism spectrum may react differently to certain situations.

When Caleb tried explaining to his friends that he sometimes finds it hard to accept change, they countered that some neurotypical people also don’t like change.

However, the challenge is usually greater for people on the autism spectrum.

For example, if Caleb usually talks to a friend every week at a certain time, missing out on one chat may be tough for him. But it may not be a big deal for someone without autism.

Karen Chan (with her husband Richard Heng) taught her son empathy. “When I watched certain shows and a character looks emotional, I try to understand what they are thinking about and what caused them to feel this way,” said Caleb.

Caleb also tends to be more insistent than most people. Once, someone made a joke about another person. Caleb stood up firmly to the person who told the joke.

“That person told me to lighten up, don’t be grumpy and a killjoy.”

Caleb (wearing bandana) has both neurotypical friends as well as friends on the autism spectrum. This has helped him navigate both worlds better.

Caleb has since learnt how to read social cues better. It has helped him to connect better with others.

“People with autism may like something so much, they don’t know how to stop sharing about it. For me, I look at how they react and tell them, ‘If I am oversharing, let me know’.”

Songs of peace

Caleb confesses that he would “still be in an emotional tailspin” if not for one major thing – his faith. It has helped him come a long way since his diagnosis.

Raised in a Christian family, he has been going to church since he was young.

But it wasn’t until he was 13 that he had a personal encounter with God. He “felt on fire for God” during a worship session at a youth camp.

Caleb (centre in jacket) with his friends from church who provide him with plenty of support.

“I felt I had a purpose and a love for Him. I really wanted to turn my life to Him.”

For Caleb, worshipping God through music has been a great help, especially when he is “slapped with over-thinking thoughts” or feeling troubled. Like the time he was worried about a friendship.

“When I play Christian songs, I revel in the song and listen to the message God is trying to tell me in the song. I find hope and delight in worship songs” he said.

“When the song Perfect Peace by Laura Story played, it hit me harder than ever. The song talks about how God really can give you perfect peace and stays by your side even in the darkest hours of your life.

“God moved me to spend time with Him and led me to experience that perfect peace. It was one of the best moments I had this year with God.”

Instagram fast

Removing distractions from his life has also helped Caleb manage his symptoms – and also grow his faith. 

For example, when he found himself playing a third-person shooter game till the early hours of the morning – and choosing the game over spending time with God – he deleted the game “to put an end to my addiction”.

There was also a time when Caleb went on Instagram to vent about his issues. 

Then a close friend encouraged him to go on an Instagram fast after Caleb graduated from polytechnic.

When he found himself playing a third-person shooter game till the early hours of the morning, he deleted the game.

During his three-week fast, Caleb chose to worship God instead of scrolling through social media.

This was when he heard God tell him to “delete my ’emo’ account because it was putting God in the back seat”.

Caleb obeyed. Now, instead of ranting, he uses social media to share inspiring stories and testimonies.  

Since then, Caleb says: “I feel much more peace. It has turned my spiritual life around. I felt very dry spiritually before that. I now have a much closer relationship with God.”

Going on an Instagram fast, and replacing emo rants with encouraging stories has brought more peace into Caleb’s life.

Caleb looks forward to spending quiet time daily with God.

“I get to thank Him for the small little things in my life, debrief with Him, talk to Him about what I am concerned about, pray for some things.

“He has been teaching me to see things that He has done in my life and how His timing is perfect,” said Caleb.

Perfect eyesight

There is some hope now that Caleb will be able to serve National Service.

A psychiatrist has written a report stating that Caleb’s autism symptoms are not severe enough to affect his ability to perform. Caleb’s mother also affirms that he has not had any behavioural issues.

His family is waiting for a response from the Ministry of Defence.

“Other than autism, I don’t have any severe health issues – no asthma, no surgeries or limb issues. I have perfect eyesight,” said Caleb.

“I am trusting God to work things out,” he said. 

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared in Salt&Light.

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