“What’s next?” This question, often thrown around in the special needs community, highlights the challenging circumstances surrounding autistic youth who leave the sanctuary of special education schools the moment they turn 18 years old. Faced with few options, like costly day-activity centres or staying at home, this stark social isolation and lack of a national support system is likened to a cliff, where caregivers of autistic adults are often left on their own to find a better outcome.
Through a series of photographs, videos and personal effects, Finding What’s Next presents the search for a future through the stories of 12 individuals and their families, gathered by three parent-advocates with autistic children. The process involved interviews with fellow parents and sheds light on the daily lives and societal challenges that autistic adults face. Lee hopes this project can be a bridge to encourage greater understanding of and empathy with autistic individuals and their caregivers. By showing what is frequently hidden, he hopes to galvanise fellow parents to be courageous with their efforts in connecting with the community and inspire more people to care and take action.
Stories produced by Lim Hwee Hwee and Sun Meilan.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Bob Lee (b.1976, Malaysia) worked as a photojournalist with Lianhe Zaobao, Singapore’s largest Chinese-language newspaper, for ten years, before leaving the newsroom and starting The Fat Farmer, a photography and videography business, in 2011. Well-regarded for his portraits of iconic public figures, Lee actively uses his skills to bring social issues to light. His project Memory Blocks was recently presented at the Singapore International Photography Festival 2020.
Twenty-year-old Marcus is always on the go. From trampoline jumps, sit-ups and chin-ups to swimming and sprinting around on his kick scooter, one might mistake the lanky bright-eyed chap for a fitness freak.
One by one, the plastic egg cartons are taken out, adhered with stickers, then neatly stacked up again. Humming their favourite Chinese children's songs, sisters Gek Teng, 20, and Gek Huee, 18, can label up to 2,000 egg cartons in an afternoon.
Trawling through Benjamin’s notebooks, one could mistake them for cafe menus. Drinks, main courses and sides are diligently documented in neat rows alongside requests of reservations by customers so he can respond to any queries.
When the world around him gets overwhelming, Ashraf, 21, will dig into his bag for one of his many counters and practise dhikr, Islamic devotional acts in which phrases or prayers are repeated. Ashraf has autism and Tuberous Sclerosis. He was bullied while studying at a mainstream primary school and developed deep-rooted anxiety as a result.
Ivan began using his hands to hit his head about a decade ago. Now age 30, he is blind in the right eye and his sight in the left eye is deteriorating. He has a visible bald patch on his head—a worn-out part of the wall hints at how he has been passing time during the sixteen years at home.
Keith cuts a familiar figure in his neighbourhood with his distinctive ear muffs, brisk walking gait and a quirk for picking up brochures from stores. No one bats an eyelid. They have grown accustomed to his mannerisms over the years and treat him with patience and understanding.
‟No talking to strangers,” Amit, 24, would mutter to himself. An unfortunate misunderstanding years ago with a member of the public scarred this affable young man and left him wary of strangers.
Her eyebrows knitted in deep concentration, Narelle, 32, meticulously folds origami lucky stars as gifts for her care staff at St Andrew’s Adult Home (SAAH). Stella, 28, who is the only other female at the home, fusses over a name list of people she knows, who are recipients of her prayers and crafts on different occasions throughout the year. Another resident, Benedict, 26, breaks into a smile from his daze each time someone approaches him for a chat.
Since he was young, Jun-Yi, 26, has been fascinated with animals and insects. He would not bear to hurt even the ants at home. A staple diet of National Geographic and Wildlife TV has expanded his knowledge of the animal kingdom, while drawing has become a channel of communication for him.