Lecturer quit job to ferry his autistic son around: 'My world circles around him'
Mr Rajendran K. Sethuraj loves teaching but left his job as a junior college lecturer for his son Kirisnah, who is autistic.
After spending his primary and secondary school years at Pathlight School, Kirisnah became anxious about studying in the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) in 2017. His parents decided that Mr Rajendran, 56, would ask for a half-load at work, so he could ferry his son to and from the campus.
The arrangement did not work out, so he turned freelance to better cater to his son's school schedule.
"My world circles around him. So even when I'm teaching in some schools, I will always tell them that I can come only at 9am and must leave by 3pm," he says.
It has been a bittersweet journey caring for his elder child, who is now age 23 and was a miracle baby after four years of marriage.
"My career is now zero," he lets slip midway through a Zoom interview.
His wife, educator Kalyani Kuppusamy, 49, is the main breadwinner and they also have a daughter, Varsha, 15.
But Mr Rajendran says: "It is not just my sacrifice alone, but also the sacrifice of the whole family because we all had to readjust our spending."
His frankness provides a glimpse into the mental load he and his wife have carried over the last two decades.
At age three, Kirisnah did not make eye contact, an observation that led them into a maze of early intervention solutions.
They had to juggle their work schedules to take him to his different therapy providers, and Mr Rajendran often found himself the only father in the waiting rooms.
With fewer resources available then, "it was really a lot of groping in the darkness because we were also trying to understand him", he says.
Rather than a 50-50 split of duties between him and his wife, he prefers to call it a team effort with one partner taking the baton when the other one is overwhelmed. "Sometimes I give in to my wife 90 per cent, then at other times my wife gives in to me," he says.
The couple still make time for dinner or movie dates, dropping off the kids at their grandparents' place.
His face lights up when describing the small wins of raising a special needs child, such as the times Kirisnah spontaneously hugs him and says "I love you", or when Kirisnah buys an extra drink for Varsha at McDonald's.
In 2019, Kirisnah was offered a permanent job at a laundry company he tried out at but told his parents: "I have decided that the work is not suitable for me."
Joy followed their disappointment. "After almost 20 years of raising him, that was the first time he made a decision on his own," Mr Rajendran recounts.
Kirisnah is now a trainee in charity SPD's Sheltered Workshop, where he practises digital scanning, data entry and document preparation to prepare him for employment in the open market.
Mr Rajendran may have plenty on his plate, but he is intent on giving back. Besides penning essays on parenting on SPD's website, he and two friends organised a free workshop last year for caregivers that was funded by the Sinda Community Impact Fund.
Together with a friend, he is also setting up a website for parents to share success stories about their special needs children. They hope to launch it in September. Rather than grieve over what could have been, "we want to educate parents so that when they look at their child, they look with pride", he explains.
He likens special needs parenting to building a long runway for Kirisnah.
"It requires a lot of blood, sweat, emotions, a lot of sacrifices, to build every single inch of the runway," he says.
"We're hoping that my son can use this runway to take off and to be an independent adult, someone with a decent job who can contribute to society in the best way he can."