We Were Children Once

The Seeds of Potential: 1970–1975

“Our children were too smart,” recalls Dr Dixie Tan, a former MP and the first president of what is now the APSN. The seeds of the APSN started in 1970 when a small group of parents realised that their children with IQs 50–70 needed a more challenging curriculum that was better suited to higher-functioning children with intellectual disabilities.

These children were under the care of the Singapore Association for Retarded Children (SARC). At the time, this organisation’s expertise and resources were more geared towards children with serious intellectual disabilities.

“Our kids are not so docile that they would stay home and watch TV. These kids of ours are in-between normal and lower IQ; they have enough brains to get into enormous amounts of mischief,” observes Dr Tan.

To address the situation, seven parents with higher-functioning children met to address the situation, forming the Educationally Subnormal Children Subcommittee, chaired by Mrs Aileen Tan. Three months later, 20 children were placed in two classes and began studying a curriculum that was as close to that of mainstream schools as possible.

As SARC psychologist Dr M.K. Wong continued to diagnose more and more children in the mildly intellectually disabled category, these children’s needs became even more urgent. By 1972, the number of pupils had doubled and the subcommittee was depending on the Church of St Peter to house them in its halls. What funds the subcommittee received came from fees paid by parents of the students. And while the need for teachers increased, lack of sufficient funds meant that the subcommittee could not always afford trained teachers.

“I can remember the chaos,” recalls Ms Salamah Salleh, a teacher who interviewed for the job in 1970 and has stayed with the APSN for 30 years. Intellectually disabled children had a low profile back then. “I was surprised to find that there were such students. They were very hyperactive. Some hid under the tables, others climbing up chairs. You find the teacher struggling with them. In one corner, a child would be struggling while the teacher is trying to attend to a second child as well as to teach the entire class.”

Becoming Independent: 1976–1980

By 1976, the subcommittee became an association in its own right, the Association for Educationally Subnormal Children (AESN). Dr Dixie Tan became the Association’s first president. This new arrangement allowed the school to raise its own funds and to cater to an ever-increasing number of students. By 1977, the AESN was operating schools at three locations: St Michael’s Church, Church of St Peter and Church of Our Lady Queen of Peace, with a total of 90 students.

Becoming independent was a financial necessity.

“We were always desperate for funds, and when we grew too big, the SARC said ‘Why don’t you form your own group?’ We had to do this so that we could have our own funds. We couldn’t survive from just collecting fees from parents,” recalls Dr Tan. “A situation would arise where, because parents cannot pay, you reject the child. Moreover, with little money, you cannot improve your standards for teachers. But more importantly, the growth that was needed was in people’s hearts.”

To raise funds that following year, in 1977, the Association also organised its first flag day, which reaped nearly $11,000. In those days, this would have been enough to pay the salary of two teachers, untrained in special education, for a year.

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