LET HER EAT CAKE!

FOUR-YEAR-OLD STELLA HAS SOME­THING IM­POR­TANT TO TEACH US GROWN-UPS: THE SHEER JOY OF BE­ING TRUE TO YOUR­SELF

The Gold Coast Bulletin - Gold Coast Eye - - WEDDINGS - WORDS: ANN WASON MOORE PHOTOS: KIT WISE

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’.”

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