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Caleb Heng is on the autism spectrum but that has not stopped him from developing a strong relationship with God. All photos courtesy of Caleb Heng.

Caleb Heng has always wanted to be a police officer. He loves watching crime dramas and can identify all the weapons used in the shows.

His childhood ambition of joining the Singapore Police Force has only grown stronger with age, he told Salt&Light.

Caleb enjoys all things to do with the police and the army.

“People even say I look like a police officer,” the 24-year-old said with pride.

“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 or maybe the way I dressed that day because I had just come home from internship.”

Caleb is well-versed in crime scene procedures from watching plenty of crime dramas.

But because Caleb has Asperger’s Syndrome, he has not been able to serve National Service (NS).

Asperger’s Syndrome is a form of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The neurodevelopmental disorder is characterised by rigid and repetitive thinking patterns, difficulty with relating to people socially, and highly-focused interests.

For a young man who lists “police-related” and “army-related” things as his top two interests, not serving in NS has been a major life disappointment.

Yet, he said he has seen God work in his life.

“Being a Christian has really helped. If not for my faith in God, I would still be in an emotional tailspin.”

Diagnosed at 11

Growing up, his parents saw little to suspect that there was anything they should be concerned about with their younger son. But when Caleb went to primary school, he started getting badly bullied.

Caleb with his parents Karen Chan and Richard Heng.

“I didn’t enjoy my five years two months in the school,” said Caleb solemnly.

Classmates would take his belongings or ask him for money and not pay back the loan. There was name-calling and teasing. Caleb reacted badly and that would encourage his classmates to taunt and torment him further. A vicious cycle soon developed.

“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 has learnt to watch out for cues from his friends when he shares about his passion for “police stuff” and “army stuff” so as not to bore them.

“So, I was unable to socialise properly with people.”

One day in Primary 5, he opened his bag to retrieve his spelling book and discovered that someone had scrawled all over the book. He reacted so strongly to the vandalism that the discipline master was called in to manage the case.

“I didn’t know I had autism. I had to Google it.”

The repeated bullying and Caleb’s reactions prompted his parents to look more closely into how he was managing himself socially. They had him tested and the year he was 11, Caleb was officially diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Even though he was doing well academically, he was having a hard time socially and his parents could see that his self-esteem was being badly affected. So, they took him out of mainstream primary school and enrolled him at Pathlight School, the first autism-focused school in Singapore that weaves life readiness skills with the country’s national education curriculum.

“Even 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.

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

“Undercover agent” in a neurotypical world

Being in Pathlight School was transformative for Caleb. For once, he found acceptance with his classmates. But even then, because autism exists on a spectrum, there were differences amongst the students.

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

As a person with high-functioning autism, Caleb does not fit the general perception of someone on the spectrum. He is articulate, relational and can look people in the eye.

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

“My mum taught me from young about empathising. 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.”

The usual outbursts and repetitive movement that mark those with autism are absent in Caleb. But all this makes it difficult sometimes for neurotypical people to understand him.

“No one person with autism is the same. I may not look like I have autism.”

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

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

For instance, when Caleb tried explaining to his friends that he struggles with accepting changes, they countered that some neurotypical people also do not like change.  

“They think I’m making excuses. That’s the biggest frustration.”

But as Caleb explained, the challenge for those on the autism spectrum tends to be greater.  

So, if he is used to talking to a friend every week at a certain time, missing out on one chat may be very tough for him, whereas it might be a non-issue for someone without autism.

He also tends to be more emphatic than most. Once, in a cell group, someone made a joke about a situation when another member was sharing a prayer request. Caleb stood up quite firmly to the person who told the joke. 

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

But Caleb has learnt how to read social cues better.

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

“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.”

Moving away from distractions  

He has come a long way since his diagnosis because of his Christian faith, Caleb said.

He grew up in a Christian family and has been going to church since he was young. But when he was 13, he had a personal encounter with God. He was at a youth camp when he “felt on fire for God” during the worship session.  

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.”

The next year, he got baptised.

Since then, he has found that worshipping God through music helps him focus when he is “slapped with over-thinking thoughts”.

“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.”

On one occasion, Caleb was troubled over a friendship issue. He turned to worship songs.

Worshipping God through songs helps Caleb overcome some of the symptoms of autism and find peace.

“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.

“The Holy Spirit speaks to people like us, too.”

“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.”

Another thing he has found helpful in growing his faith and managing his symptoms has been removing distractions from his life.

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”.

Going on an Instagram fast gave Caleb time to spend with God without distractions.

Caleb also went on an Instagram fast after he graduated from polytechnic recently.

“A very close friend encouraged me to do it and it has led me to who I am today. I used to go on Instagram to vent my issues on the post. After my Instagram fast, God told me to delete my emo account because it was putting God in the back seat.

“He has been teaching me to see things He did in my life and how His timing is perfect.”

“Ever since my Instagram fast, I have had a much closer relationship with God. I feel much more peace. It has turned my spiritual life around. I felt very dry spiritually before that.

“People think we don’t understand things, but the Holy Spirit speaks to people like us too. Even as someone with autism, we are still human beings. God still has a heart for us.”

During the fast, whenever he missed looking at his Instagram account, he would worship God instead. After the three-week fast, Caleb has been using his social media account to post testimonies instead of rants.

For Caleb, Quiet Time with God is now “one thing I look forward to”.

“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 He did in my life and how His timing is perfect.”

In His time

Caleb is seeing God work in his life in other ways. There is some hope now that he may be allowed to serve National Service.

He went to a psychiatrist who wrote a report maintaining that his symptoms of autism are not severe enough to affect his performance in the army. His mother also affirmed that he has had no behavioural issues.

Now, they are 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.

“I am trusting God to work things out.”


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About the author

Christine Leow

Christine believes there is always a story waiting to be told, which led to a career in MediaCorp News. Her idea of a perfect day involves a big mug of tea, a bigger muffin and a good book.