Tammy - Family

Tammy (left) and her pastor husband Jeff (right) are active in the Special Needs Breakthrough meetings in their church, where children with special needs, like their son Josiah (centre), can be prayed for. All photos courtesy of the Yuen family.

Tammy Yuen has a relationship with her son, Josiah, many mothers would envy.

The 12-year-old loves to hang out with her. He will not miss their evening walks together. The puzzle-loving tween, who enjoys watching Channel NewsAsia, asks mum for permission to watch the channel.

Mother and son are close.

“My hope was on a miracle at the time.”

But Yuen also has challenges with Josiah not many mothers have. Her son has not spoken his first word yet. He communicates by gestures and grunts.

“I would say he’s pre-verbal. He makes more sounds than words. If he says anything, people won’t understand him,” said 44-year-old Yuen.

He also has trouble closing his mouth, causing him to drool non-stop.

“It used to be a lot worse. We would have to change his bib constantly. It’s not as bad now but he’s still drooling.”

Left on his own, Josiah gets fixated on one action and does it repeatedly. Obsessively. Continuously.

“He would throw things on floor to watch it fall and hear the sound it makes. He can do it all day if we don’t re-direct him to do something else,” said Yuen.

Josiah has moderate autism and development delay which has severely impeded his speech development.  

“I didn’t want to believe it”

 The devastating diagnosis came when he was two. But well before then, the Yuens already had their suspicions.

The Yuens suspected something was not right when baby Josiah kept missing his developmental milestones.

The Yuens suspected something was not right when baby Josiah kept missing his developmental milestones.

Their only child kept missing all his developmental milestones.

“He started walking many months later than his peers,” said Yuen.

He always seemed to be in his own world. He would not respond when called and did not maintain eye contact.

“I wanted a quick fix. I thought I would pray and it would be okay.”

“He would get agitated quite easily especially if there were loud noises. He would hit his head on the floor or the wall. It was distressing for us to watch,” recalled Yuen.

Poor muscle tone also meant that Josiah could not keep his mouth closed and drooled constantly. He could not sit up properly either and was “slouchy”.

“I didn’t want to believe it,” admitted Yuen of her initial reaction to her son’s condition.

“Some of my friends told me I was too relaxed because many others would have gone into overdrive to try to change things.”

Instead, Yuen turned to prayer. Her husband, Jeff, was pastoring a church he had started, Soakability Church, and she was working in the church as well. The couple had even spent three years in Thailand as missionaries.

“I wanted a quick fix. I thought I would pray and it would be okay. My hope was on a miracle at the time,” admitted Yuen.

In her work in church, she had seen many such miracles.  

“The pastors and teams in the church would go to the streets to pray for the sick every Sunday. We prayed for injured migrant workers and saw them healed.”

“One needed crutches and had metal parts holding his bones together. After we prayed, he didn’t need the crutches anymore. It was instant.

“Others were healed of cancer very quickly. Even doctors couldn’t understand it.”

Too tough to handle

Meanwhile, Yuen quit her job to care for Josiah full-time. But in her heart, she was not ready to be his primary caregiver.

“You know how some parents are wired to be home-schooling parents? I wasn’t like that.

Josiah as a toddler with his daddy, Jeff, who is a pastor.

Josiah as a toddler with his daddy, Jeff, who is a pastor.

“When it comes down to fight or flight, my natural response is flight. If I try something and if it causes pain, I would retreat. All the emotional pain of caring for him was killing me.

“I was depressed and guilty. I felt condemned and powerless.”

When the hoped-for healing did not happen, Yuen became, in her words, “bewildered”.

“I didn’t blame God but I couldn’t understand what was happening, why it was happening.”

“I was depressed and guilty. I felt condemned and powerless.”

In part out of hope, in part out of denial, she tried to get Josiah enrolled in a mainstream kindergarten when the time came.

“We got rejected by everyone. It was hard for us to accept,” said Yuen.

In the end, she sent Josiah to a special education school. But guilt gnawed at her.

“The classes were only two hours a day for three days a week. That’s just six hours. The rest of the time, it was up to us to find ways to engage him.

“I would read about all the things I should try with him – keeping him engaged for 40 hours a week to see improvements.

“But it was not easy at all and I kept feeling like such a failure.”

Engaging private therapists was prohibitively pricey. At S$150 to S$200 an hour, it was too much for the now single-income family.

A Creator view

As time passed and Josiah grew, the challenges did not abate. There were temper tantrums and frustrations on both sides.

Josiah loves puzzles and can complete complex ones all on his own.

Josiah loves puzzles and can complete complex ones all on his own.

There were routines that had to be maintained just so or he would have a meltdown.

Then came a turning point a few years ago. God gave Yuen a vision.

“My jaw dropped. I had always thought of him as someone with low intelligence.”

“In this vision, Josiah was a bit older than he is now. His back was to me so I couldn’t see exactly how old he was.

“He was talking into a big IMAX screen. I asked God, ‘What is he doing?’ God said, ‘He is doing a live video conference with people of his generation.

“My jaw dropped. I had always thought of him as someone with low intelligence because he can only make sounds.”

But God showed Yuen His creator view of Josiah.

“God showed me the brilliance he has hidden inside that had not been visible to me. It caused me to repent.

“It changed the way I looked at him. I began to view him with more respect and that really helped our relationship,” said Yuen.

“God showed me the brilliance he has hidden inside that had not been visible to me.”

Instead of talking down to him and trying to fix him like a problem, Yuen began talking to him “like an intelligent person”.

“Nobody wants to be seen as a project. No wonder he was so upset.”

She also realised how damaging it was for her son when she raised her voice in anger.

“God gave me a light bulb moment. He gave me the idea that when I spoke loudly, there was so much fear in my son that it affected his nervous system and it was very de-stabilising for him.”

The Yuens kayaking in Krabi, Thailand in 2019.

The Yuens kayaking in Krabi, Thailand, in 2019.

Now, when she gets angry, she walks away and returns when she can speak in a calm, affirming tone.

“He would be a lot more receptive. Changing my tone and volume made such a difference.”

Deepened hope

Yuen calls this fresh perspective of her son a divine exchange.

“It’s about not being stuck in present reality and instead giving these things to God and allowing Him to let you see your child the way He sees him,” said Yuen.

Her new “God lenses” also freed Yuen mentally and emotionally. 

“It brought a shift in my heart. I didn’t have to be the one to make things happen,” said Yuen.

The vision God gave Tammy (centre) of how He sees Josiah (right) totally transformed her perspective of him and the way she parents him.

The vision God gave Tammy of how He sees Josiah totally transformed her perspective of him and the way she parents him.

Once stressed by not being able to meet the best standard of care because “the bar was so high, it was discouraging”, she now believed that anything she did was only in addition – “a blessing” – to what God would do for Josiah.

“It brought a shift in my heart. I didn’t have to be the one to make things happen.”

“I always felt that whatever I did for him, there was no guarantee that it would work.

“As his caregiver, I felt like what they talked about in the Old Testament where you had to do everything perfectly and it still fell short,” explained Yuen.

But as she changed, Yuen began to notice Josiah responding to the different attitude.

“I notice that a lot of special kids are very intuitive. It is almost as if my son can read my mind,” said Yuen.

“When I am in a place of rest, he is at rest and at his optimal as well.”

So, during the Circuit Breaker, even though many of the changes – the closure of his favourite mall, the postponement of his enrichment classes – were difficult for Josiah, Yuen chose not to fret.

“When I am in a place of rest, he is at rest and at his optimal.”

“We found our own rhythm during home-based learning.

“I tried not to push him too hard and, because I wasn’t stressed, he wasn’t as well and he was then able to learn things and try new things better.”

The divine exchange has given Yuen a deepened hope in God. In the two-hour conversation with Salt&Light, she expressed her gratitude about her situation several times.

“I am thankful that, because there is God, I am not left to my own limitations and my own devices.

“Now my posture is different. It no longer comes from a place of lack but a place of certainty.”

 

Bringing dignity and hope to children with special needs one brushstroke at a time

 

How an autistic boy in a wheelchair “shone as a light to the world”

 

When a plea for God to “take over” becomes a journey of blessing for parents of kids with special needs

About the author

Christine Leow

Christine believes there is always a story waiting to be told. This led to a career in MediaCorp News scripting and producing news, current affairs programmes and documentaries. Christine is now a Senior Writer at Salt&Light. Her idea of a perfect day has to do with a big mug of tea, a bigger muffin and a good book.