Wesley spent most of his younger years not knowing why he often felt like an outsider. He was later diagnosed with autism, and today, he is a passionate advocate for people with autism to come together to campaign for their cause.
As a teenager, Wesley Loh had it pretty rough. He was socially awkward and often asked questions in the classroom, so he hardly had friends. He was also often picked on in school by bullies, who physically hit him sometimes.
Throughout all of this, he did not understand why, until he was diagnosed with autism when he was 18 years old. While no two persons with autism display the exact same symptoms, they generally have difficulties in communication and social interaction, sensitivity to sensory stimulation and repetitive behaviour.
Now in his 20s and working as a tax executive, Wesley said the idea of people with autism coming together to advocate their cause is something he feels passionate about.
Wesley, a tax executive in his 20s, is a passionate advocate for people with autism.
Source of Support
In 2018, he and an autistic friend founded the WhatsApp Autism Community Singapore (WACS)1, said to be one of the first informal online Whatsapp chat groups set up and run by people with autism in Singapore.
Many people with autism feel bullied, misunderstood, excluded, or having low self-esteem because of a lack of meaningful social contact. WACS aims to offer a safe space for people with autism for social and emotional support, quality discussions and developing interests, on topics such as career and financial tips. It currently has about 200 members, including parents with autistic children.
“We want people to come together and be a source of emotional support for one another. At the same time, we want to celebrate our differences,” said Wesley.
A screenshot of various social support groups available in the WhatsApp Autism Community Singapore chat group.
In 2019, Wesley was also involved in another autistic-led event, the Life After Death Forum. The forum covered topics that are pertinent to the well-being of the autistic person after the demise of the caregivers. Billed as the “first major event initiated and led by persons with autism in Singapore, the event targeted at autism advocates to share their experiences in growing up with autism and social interactions
At the forum, Wesley shared about the social stigma persons with autism face due to their behaviour, and how they often have to mask it for fear of stigmatisation and discrimination. He also hopes that more people with autism can step up and speak out against such discrimination.
He said: “Advocacy is the first step to creating solutions. By taking the initiative, we are taking responsibility for our own circumstances and for a future that we want. We must step up to advocate for ourselves.”
Wesley, advocating for inclusivity at the Purple Parade, an annual event to support inclusion and celebrate abilities of persons with special needs.
Giving hope during COVID-19
In difficult times such as the COVID-19 pandemic, persons with autism need more support than usual.
Circuit breaker measures have made things more stressful for persons with autism because they thrive on routine and enjoy socialising, said Wesley. With the change in routine, environment, and social isolation, many of his friends with autism have been anxious, especially about working from home and the prospect of losing their jobs, he said.
In response to these circumstances, Wesley penned a poem on his blog — “Riding through COVID-19 with Hope” — to encourage fellow persons with autism not to give up.
“The community of persons with autism is one that I treasure wholeheartedly. I hope my poem can reach out to the community and draw us closer together in our common bond,” he said.
Here’s an excerpt of the poem:
But may the good practices help us find a sense of serene
And outer strength from others and inner strength from within
Holding on to hope that we can emerge from this crisis strong and fresh as evergreen
To read Wesley’s poem in full, click here.
Strengthening the support network
While Singapore has been re-opening in phases and more persons with autism can return to school or work, thus feeling less isolated at home, it is important to continue providing emotional support to persons with autism to help them cope with the many disruptions to routine as safe management measures get updated.
Meanwhile, Wesley hopes more people can join the WACS group and become active leaders in the community. He also plan to register this informal group as a society, which he hopes could open the door to grants and funding possibilities, and working with partners to advocate inclusivity in Singapore.
To find out more about WACS, click here.