Teen is ambassador to See The True Me campaign
The face of NCSS' disabilities awareness campaign helps his coach dad with physical training for special needs kids
This National Day, we celebrate with 16 stories of people who overcame adversity to give back to society. Read their stories and watch the videos at tnp.sg/ndp2016
Whenever Ivan Gomez comes across a poster of himself at the bus stop, the MRT station or the mall, he believes he's in the picture because he is an "assistant coach" to his father.
The poster shows Ivan with a net filled with footballs slung over his shoulder.
What the 16-year-old doesn't know is that he is more than that. The teen is also an ambassador for the See The True Me campaign, a programme under the Tote Board Enabling Lives Initiative, focusing on persons with disabilities and their caregivers.
Apart from the posters, there are videos on several online platforms such as Facebook and the campaign's own website.
Ivan is not aware he is the face of autism in the campaign, said his mother Selina Gomez, 40.
Ivan's calm demeanour, his flat low tones, his big eyes and smile gave no hint of the autism spectrum disorder that he was diagnosed with in 2003 - when he was three.
"He has come a long way since then," said Mrs Gomez, an early educator in special needs.
"When he was a baby, Ivan was rather quiet. It was when he was two that we discovered he was not hitting the same milestones as his older brother Emmanuel.
"He lacked eye contact and speech. He was also unaware of the things around him.
"We took him for several tests and by the time Ivan was diagnosed he was already three," she said.
At that time, they did not have a lot of information about autism.
"I had no clue what autism was. I didn't have Google then and I found limited resources at the libraries.
"Whatever I could get my hands on was depressing, but I was adamant that I was going to work through autism with my son," she said.
Ivan had sensory issues and it was extremely challenging for his parents when he was younger.
"Every minute was a challenge.
"His brain was firing constantly and sometimes sleep was not an option. He would not get a proper (amount of) sleep at night and those nights were really draining for me as my husband worked overseas.
"Once I dozed and woke up to find him eating soap," she said.
"He used to be rigid in his behaviour. We could not dine at normal restaurants because he only asked for KFC. It was much later that we could take him to a buffet," she said.
Ivan started speaking only at the age of five and he still has difficulty expressing himself verbally, or relating events that upset him.
"Most recently, one of his friends at school borrowed his phone and (it) was returned without the SIM card.
"His phone is precious to him and he would use it to call me when he got safely home from school. When he could not call, he became frustrated.
"He was trying to explain what happened but found it difficult to articulate," Mrs Gomez said.
To care for Ivan, Mrs Gomez quit her job as principal of a childcare centre to become his main caregiver. She also did a diploma in special education.
"I had to give up my career and friends. My husband had to change his job to support our financial burden.
"We faced accusations and disapproval from friends, relatives and strangers, who did not understand the challenges of an autistic child but looking at where Ivan is today, I am glad I made the sacrifice," she said.
Today, Ivan attends vocational school and travels there and back by himself.
"His current school does not cater primarily to kids like him, but he is coping well. Ivan is an introvert but he loves school, and he has friends," his mother said proudly.
Ivan is also an "assistant coach" to his father, who conducts physical training for kids with special needs.
"He is often hot on the heels of the other kids, spurring them on to 'run faster'," Mrs Gomez said.
"I just want people to know that autism is what my son has, not who he is," she said.
"We faced accusations and disapproval from friends, relatives and strangers, who did not understand the challenges of an autistic child but looking at where Ivan is today, I am glad I made the sacrifice. " — Mrs Selina Gomez, who quit her childcare centre job to look after her son, Ivan, who has autism
TNP SPIRIT OF 16 GIVINGBACK
The beneficiary is Club HEAL (Hope, Empowerment, Acceptance & Love)