Through the Eyes of Love

Mar 17, 2009
*Special to asia!

A mother’s love and foresight bears artistic fruit in her autistic son.

At a glance, 15-year old Yeak Ping Lian looks ordinary. A handsome teenager with dark piercing eyes, Ping Lian attends Sydney’s Vern Barnett School during the day. And when he is home, he draws, surfs the Internet, watches television occasionally, and listens to music.


yeak ping lian, "my dogs"

My Dog II by Yeak Ping Lian


But his mother Sarah S.H. Lee knew Ping Lian was different, even as a toddler. Sarah suspected something was amiss as Ping Lian was not like his two older sisters. Not only was his verbal communication limited, he was also hyperactive and did not need much sleep. But what worried Sarah more was the fact that he showed no affection for people around him. “I would call him but I would not be able to get his attention. It was as if I was transparent to him,” Sarah said in an e-mail interview.

When he was four years old, Sarah knew she couldn’t wait anymore and had him diagnosed. The verdict confirmed Sarah’s suspicions – Ping Lian was found to be autistic with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Autism spectrum disorder is a brain development disorder, which results in three distinctive behaviours. Autistic children have difficulties with social interaction, problems with verbal and non-verbal communication, and repetitive behaviours or narrow, obsessive interests.

Sarah remembers feeling very upset when she first heard the news. She recounted, “I asked God, ‘Why me? What have I done wrong to deserve this?’”

The early years were tough for the family. Ping Lian’s hyperactive behaviour and sleeplessness put a strain on everyone

There were other problems too. “I remember that I had to hold on tight to his hand whenever we went to the mall. If he ran away from me, he would go into a fast food joint and help himself to someone else’s drink,” she reminisced.

The only times when Ping Lian would “lose” his hyperactivity was when he stopped to admire beautiful scenery or when he was browsing through magazines such as the Home & Architectural Trends, she added.

But Sarah did not allow herself to dwell on the negatives for too long. “I needed to face the reality of autism,” she told herself. So, the long and difficult journey began for Sarah and Ping Lian. Sarah devoured books by noted autistic author Dr Temple Grandin, motivational writer Napoleon Hill and self-help advocate Anthony Robbins.

Armed with optimism from her readings, Sarah motivated herself by setting goals and targets for both her and Ping Lian. The quote she used to repeat to herself was: “It does not matter who you are now. It is who you want to be and who you become that matters…make decisions and take action now!”

Sarah also adopted some of the techniques for teaching autistic children such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). ABA-based interventions have been used in various fields but it gained popularity in the past 20 years as a tool for teaching students with autism spectrum disorder. The programme helps to increase or decrease a particular behaviour, to improve the quality of a behaviour, to stop an old behaviour, or teach a new one by breaking down complex tasks into smaller parts and teaching it in a repetitive manner.

Sarah remembers that Ping Lian could hardly hold a pencil correctly to write or use a pair of scissors to cut when he first started. In order to strengthen and develop his fine motor skills, his curriculum included tracing and colouring activities. These activities also served as a way to fill his time since Ping Lian was unable to engage in play activities. Ping Lian also had very poor imitation skills so guiding him in tracing and drawing stroke by stroke was one of the ways to develop his imitation skills. Sarah believes that ultimately these activities became a catalyst for discovering his exceptional artistic talent.

Ping Lian is now included in the select group of prodigious savants.

At the age of eight in mid-2002, Ping Lian suddenly acquired an obsession for art. Sarah remembers the sudden transition well. “One day, after he had finished eating an ice-cream cone, he just started drawing the pictures printed on the ice-cream wrapper,” she said.

Not only was the transition quite instantaneous but Ping Lian’s progress in sketching and painting also accelerated at an astonishing pace. Sarah sent him to art classes in 2003 and started planning art as a livelihood for him. “The art teachers were nervous when I told them of my plan but I assured them that I was willing to wait five, 10 or even 20 years," she says. Sarah also remembers writing in her diary in March 2003 that she knew in her heart Ping Lian would be an artist one day.

But to her surprise, Ping Lian’s exceptional art works were quickly recognised and by September 2004, he had already participated in six art exhibitions, two of which were solos. In November 2004, his water colour “Ubudiah Mosque in Perak State” was auctioned off at RM100,000 to an anonymous bidder.

From the initial sketch of pictures on an ice-cream wrapper, Ping Lian now draws and paints architectural structures, animals, nature and even personal portraits using charcoal, acrylic, watercolour and ink and oil pastels and oil.

Although Sarah’s dream of Ping Lian becoming an artist has become a reality, she has not stopped striving to do better. Her research on autism and art on the Internet led her to learn about the savant syndrome and world-renowned researcher on the subject matter, Dr Darold A. Treffert.

“I was so amazed and inspired by the many stories about savants,” she said.

When Ping Lian’s works had reached a certain level, she decided to get in touch with Dr Treffert, who is based in Wisconsin in the US.

After going through Ping Lian’s works, Dr Treffert recognised him as a savant in September 2004. Describing Ping Lian’s art as impressively pleasing and colourful, Dr Treffert said the artwork stands on its own and demonstrates a remarkable ability. “Ping Lian does show extraordinary artistic talent in and of itself.  But when seen in contrast to his limitations in other areas of functioning, his artistic talent becomes even more striking and exceptional,” Dr Treffert said in an e-mail interview.

Ruth Wong traded her job as a journalist for the hectic schedule of school runs nearly a decade ago. Since then, she has had the priviledge of teaching and learning from special kids, especially those with autism. Ruth recently relocated from Malaysia to Singapore and is discovering the joys of connecting with troubled teens.