Transforming Adversity into Advocacy

Sabrina Ho leads initiatives at the CDC, championing support for neurodiverse children, including her own son who is now a thriving adult.


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When Sabrina Ho, the current chairman of the Child Development Centre (CDC), was introduced to a friend of a friend at a dinner party, little did she know this encounter would change her life and that of her son Alexander. Her fellow guest was Pauline Hsia, then the vice-chairman of the Matilda Child Development Centre, a non-profit charitable organization offering early childhood education, assessments, and therapies for children with special educational needs. 

Alexander had been born prematurely at 26 weeks weighing only 780 grams. He remained in the acute ward of the neonatal intensive care unit at Queen Mary Hospital for more than eight months. He suffered a long list of serious physical setbacks, including four surgeries before he turned two, a grade-two brain hemorrhage that permanently affected his ability to process language, and retinopathy of prematurity, a condition which affected his eyesight. 

Navigating the challenges as parent of child with special needs

“We were fighting fire every day, and I knew from the start that he would have lifelong issues,” Sabrina recalls. “Yet I needed my son home. I was a mother but I wasn’t a parent.”

Sabrina had to prove she could look after Alexander before the hospital would agree to discharge him, so she engaged an experienced neonatal nurse from Great Ormond St Children’s Hospital in England to come to Hong Kong. Her mother-in-law, a first-generation special needs teacher, left her home in Malaysia to help. Although some friends and family deemed Sabrina selfish for not giving up her job as a chartered accountant, she continued working, often from home, which was unheard of in 1998. 

“My job was something for me and I had a very understanding and generous employer,” says Sabrina. “My mother-in-law also saved my life and my son. When I didn’t have the patience to reach him, my mother-in-law could.” 

The life-changing help from the Child Development Centre

Two years after being born, Alexander was still oxygen dependent and looked like a six-month-old baby. He couldn’t crawl, let alone walk, and had no muscle tone. He couldn’t talk. Had it not been for the support of Sabrina’s boss and colleagues, she discloses that she would have committed suicide as she was deeply depressed and didn’t know which way to turn. Finding out about the Matilda Hospital CDC, therefore, was a lifesaver. 

“Back then, the Internet was not like it is now and it was incredibly hard to find anything out. As my husband is Malaysian and we communicate in English, we were advised by a speech therapist to speak to our son in English. This meant he couldn’t access what little care there was in the local Chinese-language system while the English help available mostly came at a huge cost,” Sabrina explains. 

Alexander spent two happy years at the CDC, which Sabrina believes had a huge impact on his social development.  He was later diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of seven. By that time, he was a pupil at the Australian International School, from which he later graduated.  Although finding a school was initially a struggle for Sabrina, and attending it had been an ongoing challenge for Alexander, the head teacher at the time was one of the first Australian teachers to integrate special needs students into mainstream schooling. 

“Children at the school were taught from an early age that not all kids are the same,” she says. “It was a wonderful, nurturing environment and my son would not be where he is today without it.”

Paying it forward to help other struggling families

Fast forward several years and Alexander is now 26 and a graduate of RMIT University in Melbourne. He lives in Hong Kong with Sabrina and works for a multinational corporation.

“It takes all sorts to build a society. My son will never be the most creative or ingenious person but assign him a job and he will do it,” Sabrina says, clearly proud of what her son has achieved.

There is a misconception that someone on the autism spectrum is a math genius or a music prodigy. Alexander doesn’t have a special gift but he is special in a different way.

Sabrina got involved in the running of the CDC after Alexander left school in 2001, becoming a member of the executive committee. Three years later, she was appointed treasurer and then elected as chairman in 2007, all the while continuing with her day job. On her watch, the center has flourished, expanding from its original home on the Peak into bigger premises. Currently, it’s housed in a new purpose-built facility in Fortress Hill, a bright and well-equipped space that caters to both English and Chinese speakers.

“Through volunteering at the center, I’ve formed a mutual support group with other families. Some of them are on the executive committee because we know what the center has done for our children and we want to support other parents and make their lives easier. We can empathize with what they are going through. You know when people say it takes a whole village to raise a child? I have a whole county.”

Sabrina’s Words of Advice:

  • The sooner you have your child assessed and get early intervention, the better. 
  • Acceptance is very important and parents need to acknowledge that their child is different. Denial delays the help that your child needs.
  • Don’t get upset by what people say. They might not understand that if your child is screaming and shouting in Toys“R”Us, they aren’t being naughty but are overstimulated by the lights and sounds and need somewhere quiet.