LET HER EAT CAKE!
FOUR-YEAR-OLD STELLA HAS SOMETHING IMPORTANT TO TEACH US GROWN-UPS: THE SHEER JOY OF BEING TRUE TO YOURSELF
As she watched her daughter scoffing down a sixth slice of stolen party cake, Lorraine Gaffney gave in. Almost two years after her child was dealt an autism diagnosis, the Ashmore mum says she finally accepted the new reality of four-year-old Stella’s little life. And it’s pretty amazing.
“Anyone can tell you how hard it is to parent a child with autism,” Lorraine says.
“But it’s also the most rewarding, most incredible gift to be given a child like this.
“Stella shows us what life can be like when you really do the things you love, when you’re not tied down by social rules.
“Sure, it can be embarrassing when you’re the mother of the child who just jumped fully clothed into an indoor fountain at a five-star hotel – but I’ve decided that’s my problem, not hers.”
Public swimming, an attraction to other people’s food, an aversion to clothing and the odd joy ride on a senior stranger’s mobility scooter – Lorraine has learned to love it all. But it’s been a long, hard lesson in letting go. “I distinctly remember the moment when I thought, ‘stuff this, if I can’t beat her, I’m joining her’,” Lorraine says.
“We were at her fourth birthday party at the Royal Pines playground and there was a party just adjacent. Their cake came out first and Stella – who loves food – was like a moth to a flame.
“We just could not keep her away from the other party. My husband Gus and I were taking turns to hold her back and she was yelling, then she’d break free and cram another piece in her mouth. On her sixth slice, I just started laughing. I’m never going to beat her love of cake. And why should I?
“Nobody cared except me. The other party, the other parents, even the other kids, all they could see was a little girl who loved cake.
“I was the only who was seeing the girl with autism who didn’t understand that it’s not socially acceptable to steal sweets. And that’s when I decided to listen to what she’s teaching me.”
Lorraine says some of the perks of autism include an automatic ticket to the front of the queue, free food and no dress code. She says despite her reservations, her acceptance of Stella’s behaviour has been mirrored by friends, family and strangers alike.
“Stella doesn’t understand all of our social rules, and it’s not a situation where you can just simply explain it either,” Lorraine says.
“Communication is hard for her. Telling her ‘no’, leads to a tantrum, not compliance. We work on these things at home and at school but in public it can be really tough. But I have to say, through every meltdown and tantrum she has had, or every time she’s run straight to the head of the line or taken food from a stranger’s plate, not one person has ever been anything but understanding towards her – and me. The kindness of people has just been wonderful. Seeing the compassion of others has been a blessing.”
Lorraine says one of the people who has had the greatest impact on Stella and her family’s journey has been her teacher Trish Mark.
Trish, who has a masters in special education focusing on the autism spectrum disorder and intellectual impairment, first taught Stella at the ASD-specific childcare centre AEIOU.
“Dealing with an ASD diagnosis is extremely difficult for parents,” Trish says.
“They really do need to go through a grieving process. For Lorraine and Gus, they worked through it and have come out the other side ready to embrace the things that make Stella so special – and that is the greatest thing they can do for her.
“That’s actually a key to how we teach. There is plenty that these children struggle with and we – and their parents – are working on them every day.
“But more importantly, you have to identify their strengths. Stella just loves singing and dancing. She has an undeniable spark about her and you have to encourage that to grow, not dismiss it.
“If she loves food, water, dancing, Dora, whatever – that’s the switch you use to flick her over from struggling to listening. “That’s how you burst the bubble that is ASD. “She’s perfectly happy in her own little world, but we need to draw her out if she’s going to be the girl she can be.”
Lorraine says after two years at AEIOU, Stella will enter mainstream school next year.
It’s a huge step for the girl who at age three was assessed as a one-year-old. Now she’s reached many of her age-appropriate milestones and her parents couldn’t be prouder – albeit a little exhausted.
“I feel like we’ve come full circle in a lot of ways,” says Lorraine.
“I’ve had to let go of some of the dreams and plans I had for my little girl and reimagine them. I know a lot of parents have to do that, but for us the future is still uncertain. I don’t know where she’ll end up so I try not to dream too far ahead. She’s come so far so fast, we can only hope that continues. But sometimes it feels it’s safest to stick to one day at a time.”
Lorraine says, while every day still presents its challenges, she and Gus are in a much better place than when they first received the diagnosis.
She says that was one of the darkest times in her life, when she – like Stella – struggled to make sense of what was being said.
“I really had no idea that anything was wrong,” she says. “I just thought she was taking a long time to speak. When they said it was autism, I just couldn’t understand. All my life I wanted a little girl, and I never thought I would get her.
“I didn’t find out her sex before she was born but I told Gus that if she was a girl, I was going to go crazy.
“I spent a lot of money in six months on clothes for her. I went nuts. Then suddenly I’m thinking we’re never going to do all the things I dreamt of doing with my daughter. It was awful.”
But Lorraine says accepting her daughter’s diagnosis has actually brought some of her old dreams into reality.
She says embracing Stella’s free spirit has allowed her to see her daughter’s true personality. “She’s exactly the daughter I wanted,” she says. “She’s hilarious, she’s gorgeous, people just love her. We had a family function at the Sheraton and when no one was looking she jumped into the indoor fountain and started swimming around.
“She was like a magical mermaid. The staff, other diners, strangers, they were all just watching her and loving it. That will be a story I’m sure they’ll be retelling for years. You want your daughter to be strong and memorable, and she is that.
“Funnily enough, she just loves clothes as well. We’ve counted 16 outfit changes in the space of 24 hours. She loves tutus, fairy dresses, swimmers – all things frilly and girlie. And just the other day she found my nail polish and decided to paint her toes. And the carpet. I know her life is not always going to be easy but I am going to be her advocate. I can only hope that if I’m showing how I accept her and celebrate her, others will as well.”
“I DISTINCTLY REMEMBER THE MOMENT WHEN I THOUGHT, ‘STUFF THIS, IF I CAN’T BEAT HER, I’M JOINING HER’.”