Đinh Vũ Tùng Lâm (fourth from left) at the 62nd International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) 2021. All six members of the Vietnamese team brought home medals, including one gold, two silver and three bronze. VNA/VNS Photo
HÀ NỘI — On his first day of elementary school back in 2009, Đinh Vũ Tùng Lâm was sent home after biting a friend on the ear.
As a result, his teacher said that he could not attend regular school.
Last week, however, that same boy, now in the 12th grade, won a silver medal at the 62nd International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) 2021.
Lâm said the medal should have been given to his mother, who has supported him for the past eighteen years.
“She is my mum, my friend, my protector. She is the reason I have achieved what I have today,” Lâm said.
But Lâm’s mother, Hải Yến, said any mother would do the same.
“I want to tell other parents who have kids with autism like me that anything is possible as long as you try, and have faith. Your children can and will grow up and be successful just like any other child,” Yến said.
When Lâm was three years old, he was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). For Yến and her husband, this was a daunting prospect. A parents' love for their child, however, can overcome any obstacle.
“He was non-verbal until the age of four, he would scream and attack anyone including me on a daily basis. He would fly into a rage very often,” Yến said.
“But he was particularly interested in numbers,” said Lâm's father, Đinh Quang Ngọc.
Ngọc says he remembers many times when Lâm would recall the numbers that he had seen on the street that day.
But Lâm’s gift was often overshadowed by his autism.
Yến tried to register Lâm at a number of schools but was knocked back again and again. She would not, however, give up.
At Lê Quý Đôn Elementary school in Hà Nội, Yến finally found a place for Lâm.
This was, however, conditional: Yến had to make a commitment to the school’s board that she would support Lâm in class.
This, however, at times, was for Yến heartbreaking.
“I couldn’t help shedding tears when seeing Lâm try to join his classmates in games and then get rejected. One day he held a tree and just cried and cried,” she said.
Yến decided she had to go beyond academic support and would need to also help Lâm to socialise and make friends. She would often invite his classmates over to their house and cook for them. She also offered to collect other children from school for the other mums and take them home after class. Sometimes she would take them to the cinema and stay and watch movies with them.
“Lâm began to make friends, really good friends, who have stayed with him ever since,” Yến said.
Đinh Vũ Tùng Lâm (right) and his parents. Photo Courtesy of Vũ Hải Yến.
Every day the unstoppable mother and her son learned something new together. Lâm said he was lucky to have her beside him.
“She would read poems with me every day and stayed up late to study the multiplication tables with me. She would also walk around the streets with me the whole day to observe things when I had homework on writing,” Lâm said.
“I started to like literature and was especially interested in maths. When I told mom about the first 10 out of 10 I received for a test in maths, she smiled but her eyes were all red,” he said.
Yến had been crying.
She said when she found out Lâm had a knack for maths, she felt like it was a light at the end of the tunnel.
“I was told by autism experts that autistic kids have a kind of darkroom in their heads. Parents need to find a way to bring them out of that darkroom. For Lâm, maths lightened up the room and helped him become more confident,” she said.
In the first weeks of the 2nd grade, Lâm solved all the questions in the maths textbook.
He got his first maths prize in solving problems in a magazine called Toán tuổi thơ (Mathematics for Kids).
He went on to win more prizes at national, regional and then international levels including a silver medal at Asia-Pacific Mathematical Olympiad, golden medal at Hà Nội Mathematics Open Contest, High Distinction rank at Australian Intermediate Mathematics Olympiad, golden medal at the World Mathematics Team Championships.
Đinh Vũ Tùng Lâm in the 8th grade, after winning a High Distinction at the Australian Intermediate Mathematics Olympiad. Photo Courtesy of Vũ Hải Yến
Last year, Lâm took part in the International Mathematical Olympiad but was only granted an honorary award. He was upset but still congratulated his friends who won medals.
"He was so sad," his mother said, “that I was afraid of the possibility of him taking part in the competition one more time and failing to win a medal would be very upsetting for him.”
But he decided to come back this year.
“I told him ‘Don’t think of it as a competition, think of it as a chance to solve the mathematical problems that you like’,” Yến said.
Lâm took her advice on board and brought back a silver medal.
“All the medals and prizes make Lâm happy and more confident, but I told him they’re just a part of his life, and they're so many things waiting for him ahead. The important thing is that he must always be humble and patient,” Yến said.
Yến said she couldn’t have done what she’s done without having a tough attitude.
She also notes that her daughter, Lâm's sister, was born with cerebral palsy.
“You can imagine the hardship and the sorrows,” she said.
Her husband, Ngọc, however, says that she is always smiling and he is a lucky man.
"I owe her my life for all the things that she's been doing for the family, for the kids," Ngọc said.
“With a kid with autism, another one with cerebral palsy, I have no choice but to stay positive to keep the good energy in the family,” she said.
When Lâm entered 10th grade, Yến found out she had thyroid cancer one afternoon.
She cried out of concern for her family but then she remembered she had to pick Lâm up later that noon, she told herself: “Ok, I’ll be done with the crying by 4 p.m.”
Luckily, her treatment went well.
“I always tell Lâm that he is still luckier than many others because he has me and his dad who are always beside him, so he needs to stay positive and have sympathy for others,” Yến said.
Lâm wrote a letter to his mother in 2018.
In it he wrote: “I always want to look at my mom’s bright eyes whenever I do something good. I know I have to be braver and stronger going forward because I want my mum to be happy.”
And she is. — VNS