Mum of Nine on Caring for Six Children with Special Needs (Caregivers’ Specials)

With nine children, there is never a dull day in Mdm Tahirah’s home. Always lively, noisy and sometimes messier than she likes, there is no shortage of help when someone [...]

With nine children, there is never a dull day in Mdm Tahirah’s home. Always lively, noisy and sometimes messier than she likes, there is no shortage of help when someone is in need. But isn’t this the beauty of a large family? In this final instalment of the Caregivers’ Specials, we hear from Mdm Tahirah (pictured left in cover photo), a homemaker and mummy of nine children aged between two to twenty.

When Mdm Tahirah’s first son, Huzaifah, was growing up, things were going great. The family did not notice anything amiss with Huzaifah until he was six.

“At a parent-teacher meeting, the teacher told us that Huzaifah was isolating from his classmates and breaking down in tears while in class. His Primary 1 teacher also suspected that he may have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as he was walking around during lessons,” recalled Mdm Tahirah.

Huzaifah’s behaviour escalated to meltdowns. Mdm Tahirah remembered when Huzaifah was eight, he had a meltdown in a crowded MRT train. At that time, she was at a loss on how to help him. Awareness of persons with special needs was also not as prevalent back then.

Huzaifah was nine years old when he was officially diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). More curveballs were thrown in Mdm Tahirah’s way as her second son was diagnosed with ADHD, and her fifth child has ASD. Her 7-year-old twins and 4-year-old son, Abbas, were also found to have Global Developmental Delay (GDD).

From left: Abbas (4 years old), Ammar (15), Ziyad (7), Zinnirah (2), Rumaisa (12), Huzaifah (20), Talhah (9), Zayid (7), and Mu’az (17)

It was a particularly distressing period for Mdm Tahirah each time her child receives a diagnosis. By the time she had her eighth child, Abbas, she was used to all the hospital visits. With three sons who graduated from SPD’s Building Bridges EIPIC Centre and one currently enrolled, she jokingly described her relationship with SPD as a “sign-on package”.

“With four sons diagnosed with special needs consecutively before I had my youngest girl, I almost forgot how it felt like to have a child without special needs,” she admitted.

However, her experience of caring for the older children did not make the diagnosis of her younger children any easier to stomach.

She said: “Every child is different, even if the diagnosis is the same. That’s why I have to learn and re-learn about their conditions by hitting the books. It helps me to reduce my anxiety too.”

But no amount of preparation could have readied her for the next crisis. When Huzaifah was 15, he was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It was heart-wrenching for Mdm Tahirah to see Huzaifah struggle with the condition: “Having OCD is like having a bully stuck inside my son’s head and nobody else can see it. It was devastating to see my son losing himself.”

Over time, Huzaifah’s siblings began to experience the aftermath of the effects brought about by their brother’s condition.

“I was not aware that Huzaifah’s condition was affecting his younger brother who was preparing for his Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) that time. I only knew when I was called out to meet his teachers and counsellor. But for many months that year, I also saw how my other children were taking care of their eldest brother by giving hugs, doing acts of service for him, having heartfelt conversations and saying prayers in his name. Huzaifah became better. One night, one of his younger brothers fell ill. I went into their room and saw my eldest son brushing his brother’s untidy hair with his hands. My heart wept with joy,” she shared.

The love and kindness that the children have for each other stem from their understanding of each other’s conditions. For Mdm Tahirah’s family, inclusion begins right at home. When each child turned 10, she started explaining their siblings’ conditions to them. She also gave them a book titled “My Brother is Different”, which quickly became a requisite reading among the siblings.

With so many children relying on her for support, she is keenly aware of the importance of self-care so that she can be fully present for her family.

“Having some ‘me’ time is good for my self-rejuvenation. It is the greatest gift that I can give to my loved ones by taking care of myself. Receiving help from others is also a form of self-care. It doesn’t make you weak as humans are not created to survive alone,” she shared.

Blessed with a supportive family, the caregiving journey was made much smoother for Mdm Tahirah. On weekdays, her mother will help to care for the children when Mdm Tahirah runs her errands or takes a breather. The older children also help occasionally when they can. On weekends, it is all hands on deck as the entire family helps out with the household chores.

“Our kids are taught to do chores since young to instil responsibility, teamwork, life skills, and humility. Although our family may appear chaotic, we have enough order to achieve progress and goals. We prioritise by knowing what is urgent and important,” she shared.

Even the supposedly daunting task of bringing the children outdoors does not faze Mdm Tahirah. With a buddy system in place, the four older children will help care for the four younger ones, while Mdm Tahirah and her husband will manage their youngest daughter.

Stares from the public are common whenever one of her children experience a meltdown, but Mdm Tahirah views this as a good public education opportunity: ”With every exposure, the meltdowns get less frequent and I do my best to educate the public about my children’s diagnosis.”

The expansion of Mdm Tahirah’s family over the years.

She hopes that the societal effort to create more awareness on conditions like ASD, ADHD or GDD can continue as all children deserve to be included, special needs or not.

As parenting is a lifelong journey, Mdm Tahirah encourages all caregivers to take good care of themselves: “Remember, your child depends on you. You are their link to the world. So, you have to be mentally, physically, and emotionally strong. Seek help when you feel overwhelmed. Do not lose hope and never give up. Continue with your effort. You are doing a marvellous job!”