Observing Malkeith as he carries out his duties, be it patiently guiding his clients as they go about their activities or managing challenging behaviours, there is a certain rhythm and ease with which he does things that can only come from over a decade of experience on the job. Today, I joined him on his walk with his autistic adult clients at the Day Activity Centre.
Curious, I asked him how his journey as a coach began. The question must have conjured a fond memory. His face lit up as he recalled, “A good friend of mine asked me if I was interested in volunteering at his workplace and as a fresh graduate at the time, I thought “why not?”. It was a fit right from the start. Something about the clients tugged at my heartstrings. I just had a feeling this was something I could do for the long-term. I was offered a job the next day and here we are almost 12 years later. Both my friend and I are still here at SAAC.”
As we walked with the clients, he shared with me some of his earliest memories on the job – the first time he got bitten by a client having a meltdown, the first community outing to Underwater World, and the countless times parents conveyed their gratitude to him over the progress their child has made. The stories were eye-opening and precious for me, as a corporate staff who does not serve our beneficiaries directly.
One thing was obvious to me – the nature of the job as a coach for autism comes with many highs and lows. I wondered what made him stay on the job for so long despite all the challenges. Without missing a beat, he shared, “The personal connections I have built with my beneficiaries has been my main motivation and inspiration and seeing their progress, no matter the scale of it, keeps me going. Persons with autism have their own special gifts and abilities but they may need additional support and accommodations in order for them to be able to share these gifts with the world. My job gives me the privilege to touch lives directly by helping clients lead more independent and fuller lives.”
Keeping a close eye on the clients who were still doing their rounds, he added, “Mentoring my staff to help clients realise their potential is another perk of my job. I’m also at the stage in my career where I’m responsible for planning and implementing programmes which directly impact the clients, and that has renewed my vigour for the job and the conviction I feel for what we do.”
“So what does it take to be a good coach?”, I quizzed him. He thought about it for a minute and responded earnestly, “Coaching someone with autism is a unique experience with unique challenges. For example, unlike a typical educational institution, our clients do not have a graduation day that they can look forward to. Many of the clients have been with the DAC for years and they will be here for the foreseeable future. So instead of waiting for milestones, every bit of improvement in the client is a cause for celebration and when you do not see progression as fast as you would like, you need to be resilient enough to push through.”
Completing the final round, we make our way to our Dignity of Work farm where the clients will be harvesting a fresh crop of vegetables for sale. I asked him how he avoids burnout. “You need to teach yourself to compartmentalise and to detach outside of work. Recharge and take care of yourself. Tomorrow is another day to try again,” he said matter of factly.
“Sometimes after a hard day’s work and I am bone-tired, I think about how hard it must be for parents. Autism never takes a break and the six hours that their child is at the DAC is the only chance for respite that caregivers get. That really puts things in perspective for me. It’s very humbling and at the same time, it makes me realise how meaningful this job is,” he continued.
Watching Malkeith guide the clients how to gently snip off the ends of the vegetables, and knowing that the vegetables will make their way to the dinner tables of many families tonight, I too walked away with renewed vigour and appreciation for what we do here at SAAC.
In celebration of May Day, we wrap up this #StoriesofSAAC series with Malkeith Singh, Coordinating Coach Leader of the Day Activity Centre (DAC) at St. Andrew’s Autism Centre. This post is dedicated to our frontliners who go above and beyond their call of duty each day to serve our 460 clients, students and residents.
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