Autism Not a Stumbling Block for Chuah Yi Hern

October 14, 2021

Despite having mild autism since childhood, Chuah Yi Hern has never shied from taking on new challenges. The bright, self-motivated, and ambitious 24-year-old recently graduated from INTI International College Penang with a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science

According to Yi Hern, college life has been a wonderful experience which allowed him to meet a lot of new people and participate in various activities.

Chuah Yi Hern, who recently graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science from INTI International College Penang, refuses to be confined by his limitations.

“Many of my classmates are kind and we frequently have interesting talks on our schoolwork and tasks. INTI lecturers are also helpful and always eager to assist me with after-school tutoring on any challenging topics or assignments. I appreciate their help and it motivates me to work harder in class,” he said.

As a result of the positive experience he has had with kind-hearted people at INTI, Yi Hern said he became better at reaching out for help.

“I notified some of my lecturers and Head of Programme, Ms Usha Jayahkudy, about my difficulties. They understood my situation and offered me counselling and support to help me overcome some of the challenges I faced in college activities. They helped me realise that I can ask for help and this is a skill that I will take away,” he explained.

While Yi Hern enjoys Mathematics, a vital subject in college, and consistently receives the highest grades in all of his classes, his life in college is not without its challenges. For him, doing class presentations can be intimidating and it can take extra time and effort to complete assignments. He also has difficulty in adjusting to change.

“I have to actively spend time preparing myself before a change and adjusting afterwards. Also, I have to acknowledge that computer coding is the most difficult task and subject. I originally struggled since it is so complicated and needs a large number of logic algorithms. I’m glad I was able to overcome this with the assistance of my lecturers,” he said.

A believer of the saying ‘practice makes perfect’, Yi Hern has plans to continue his studies at INTI by enrolling in an Honours or Masters programme. At the same time, he also plans to start looking at career options.

“There are some great things about being autistic. I am passionate about the things that matter to me, and I love learning new things. But more than anything, I am a very accepting person. I know what it feels like to be different and to be excluded, so I try my hardest to show people they can be themselves around me,” he smiled.

Growing up

Yi Hern’s father, Mr Chuah, recounts his experience bringing up a child who not only made him a father, but also a fighter.

“When Yi Hern turned one, then two, he had not seen a doctor, except for some routine vaccinations. His heart was healthy, his lungs worked well, and he was not suffering from any serious health symptoms. The only thing that perhaps stood out was certain behaviour that people might see as being stereotypical of children, but I never imagined what it indicated,” he shared about the visit to a paediatrician during which he received a medical report stating that Yi Hern has mild autism.

It was at that moment that Mr Chuah felt like he was thrown into the deep end, but he knew survival is the only option.

“We participated in various programmes for special kids during his early childhood, primarily to help him improve his speech and communication skills. It went well, but he was a little slow in voicing his thoughts. Nevertheless, we are grateful that he was becoming more independent.

“As parents, we always try to keep the end goal in mind, which is for him to be more independent and to be able to attend to his own basic needs. His daily activities are similar to those of other people. He is in charge of his daily activities, starting with his morning routine, making his coffee, and taking the shuttle to school. After school, he often goes to a nearby food stall for a tea break by himself, and then he does his schoolwork at night,” Mr Chuah explained about a day in the life of Yi Hern.

When asked about the biggest challenge in raising Yi Hern, Mr Chuah said, “His mind set is simplistic and he struggles to comprehend people’s emotions fully, so we have to remind him to distinguish between right and wrong constantly. Also, I have to explain to others that he has difficulty expressing his thoughts and requires extra instruction and patience while interacting with him.

Chuah Yi Hern, who recently graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science from INTI International College Penang, refuses to be confined by his limitations.

“Despite all the challenges, we try to let him live a normal life with regular schooling rather than attending a special school so that he has the opportunity to study and interact with regular people. In fact, Yi Hern had attended a four-day youth camp in high school and it went smoothly without a hitch.”

By accepting his son for who he is, Mr Chuah has also set an example for others around Yi Hern to do the same.

“Raising Yi Hern has taught me to become more patient. I’m learning how to appreciate people, especially those who require extra care,” he said, adding that Yi Hern has an exceptional memory which allowed him to memorise entire narrative volumes and receive perfect scores on spelling tests.

Supporting students with autism

At INTI, support is always available for students with autism, from pre-application until completion of the programme. Head of programme Usha Jayahkudy and lecturer Shahriman Mohd Said, both from INTI International College Penang, have been helping working on ways to better understand and support students with autism in their college journey.

“Our mission is to help them, including Yi Hern, to transition into college, be successful here, and then move into adult life,” said Usha.

Finding time to support students with autism and an entire classroom of students may feel overwhelming in terms of time and resources, so as an educator, the first step is to seek support. Usha shared that INTI lecturers attended a workshop conducted by a specialist on autism. They then worked together as a team to create a learning plan and monitored progress.

“Ongoing assessment and monitoring of students’ progress is vital to determine future learning goals. For students with autism, this continuous monitoring provides a way to measure their progress in acquiring necessary skills. For lecturers, it shows where additional support is required, particularly where no progress has been made,” she said.

Meanwhile, Shahriman noted that students with autism have a lot of passion about their areas of interest and they think outside the box, using original approaches to solving problems. Students with autism tend to take rules seriously and take a dim view of rule-breakers. They are also good visual and spatial learners with excellent memory.

“Yi Hern has an excellent memory when it comes to facts. The only challenge will be when it comes to unstructured problems, or if there are multiple solutions,” Shahriman said about his experience teaching Yi Hern in subjects like Software Engineering, Real World Projects, Open-Source Development and Web API Development.

While students with autism may face new responsibilities and challenges as they pursue higher education, the right support and guidance from lecturers and family members will bring them success in the end.