SINGAPORE: At 56, researcher and artist Dr. Dawn-Joy Leong has amassed a wealth of accolades, from academic awards to recognition of her artistic endeavors.
Just last year, she won a grand prize at the Goh Chok Tong Enable Awards, celebrating the achievements of people with disabilities.
But she points out: Her career only really took off not long ago — after a life-changing diagnosis at 42 revealed she had autism.
“I’m a late mover because I didn’t start doing anything until after I was diagnosed. If you look at my resume, it doesn’t start with my degree (1989)…I didn’t do anything,” joked Dr. Leong.
“It was only after my diagnosis that I really got around to doing all the things that I love to do, that I wanted to do.”
DIAGNOSIS RECEIVED AT 42
dr Leong was diagnosed with autism in 2007 after a series of stressful events prompted her to have suicidal thoughts.
Aside from the pressure and isolation of pursuing her masters in Hong Kong, her father was dying, her family was “basically falling apart” and her friends were absent, she said.
“There was one night I remember very clearly… I just found myself on the ledge (of the bedroom window) staring at the moon with this strange compelling (thought): Just jump.”
She sought professional help and after a few sessions and tests, her psychologist said she was autistic.
With that revelation came a wave of relief that she “wasn’t in any way impaired or bad,” she said, adding that it helped her understand some difficulties in her past.
For example, teaching in preschool was “terrible” because of the constant “sensory bombardment” that exhausted her every day. In addition, there was the treatment of an autoimmune disease, Behcet’s syndrome.
“It came out as, ‘Wow. It’s great, I’m not a bad, antisocial, nasty person because I don’t want to go into a crowded, noisy room.’”
NEW SENSE OF IDENTITY
The diagnosis marked “the beginning of being yourself,” said Dr. Leong.
It gave her a new sense of identity and purpose, which she channeled into her lifelong passion for science and art.
In 2016 she received her PhD in Australia on autism and art, for which she received a Dean’s Award.
In 2019, she became the first and only autism researcher from Singapore to be invited to sit on committees of the Asia Pacific Autism Conference.
The following year, she became the first autistic artist in Singapore to be commissioned with a solo exhibition by a major art institution, the National Gallery Singapore.
In 2021, she received a prestigious award for significant achievements in her field at the Goh Chok Teng Enable Awards.
Despite all of this, she claims her greatest achievement is having the courage to break off “toxic” relationships in her life.
This included relationships with certain family members who felt she needed to be “closed” because of her quirks, as well as some relatives and friends who she said manipulated her because of her autism.
“[Leaving this situation]meant I had to let go of my friends, family and privilege. So I got to a point where I’d rather be myself than be a well cared for pet in a golden cage.
“And that was my greatest moment. … From then on, I never looked back.”
SENDING A MESSAGE TO SOCIETY
After winning several awards, Dr. Leong: “This so-called worldly success was never my goal and it still feels very strange to me… I just look at (my projects) as something that an inner compulsion made me do.”
But she hopes that winning an award at the Goh Chok Tong Enable Awards will send a message to society. “(I hope it shows) it is possible in one way or another for people with disabilities to thrive, to find themselves.
“I hope that winning this award speaks to others that it is possible to achieve your dreams with a lot of help from others.”
At the same time, she emphasized another message: that people are worthy whether they win an award or not.
NOMINATIONS OPEN FOR AWARDS
Nominations for the fourth edition of the Goh Chok Tong Enable Awards (GCTEA) will be accepted until July 15th.
The awards, an initiative of the Mediacorp Enable Fund, were created in 2019 by Senior Minister Emeritus Goh Chok Tong, the fund’s patron. The awards are also supported by the Tote Board and UBS Singapore.
The GCTEA (UBS Achievement) that Dr. Leong honors people with disabilities who have made significant achievements in their fields and who serve as an inspiration to others.
Another award category, GCTEA (UBS Promise), is for people with disabilities who have “demonstrated a promise to strive for higher heights in their talent areas,” Mediacorp said.
This year’s GCTEA winners will be announced in December.
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