L’amour actually

Happiness incarnate (first day of school, 2014)

Happiness incarnate (first day of school, 2014)

MY FIVE-year-old Amelia loves school the way that Pepé Le Pew had a case of deep, un-PC l’amour for Penelope Pussycat in the old Looney Tunes cartoons.

It’s a profound, single-minded passion, and like Pepé, Amelia will brook no barriers (in his case, not even a wrongly identified species) between herself and her love for a paramour called Primary School.

Even on mornings when she has spent an entire vomit-punctuated night on the tiles with her weary head draped over a bucket, Amelia will fight hard for her right to go to school.

As soon as I start to say that we might have to pull the pin on the day’s play, she fixes me with a look of desperation, somewhere between sorrow and defiance, and cries, “No Mum! I WANT TO GO TO SCHOOL!’

I have to sneak into the kitchen and quietly call the office to report her impending absence, all the while aware that my school-obsessed child is in her room struggling manfully into her uniform between bouts of wretching, coughing and sneezing.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, which just about sums up my experience of parenting such a wild, enigmatic girl.

Eventually Amelia accepts her lot and melds into the couch as she must, but not before many tears have been shed over her tragic separation from the place that gives her so much happiness, so much purpose. So much confidence.

On its own, it’s not such a terrible problem to have, is it? A child who will get ready for school in the blink of an eye and stand at attention by the door waiting for her bus ride, a full 15 minutes before it is due to arrive.

A child who will rush with you from a morning appointment, never tarrying, to make sure she makes it to school before the end of ‘brain gym’ or to the start of music, dance or Auslan; just a few of the classes that have so inspired her mind this year.

But there is one big drawback to all this school time ardour that has the potential to make life very tricky for me.

Equal to Amelia’s adoration of school is her infinite regard for routine. Clearly these loves go hand-in-hand with each other, as school is the central experience in her life that is founded on a strict timetable and the all important ‘knowing what comes next’.

There’s nothing that freaks my ASD child out more than not knowing what is coming next. In the next minute, next hour, week, or month.

We spend our lives trying to quell Amelia’s anxieties through repeated information about timeframes, plans and some form of schedule, but life beyond school is never as predictable as she would like.

Let me tell you, it is downright exhausting to live with someone who never stops asking, ‘and then what? And then what? AND THEN WHAT?!’

So, imagine you are the parent of this rigid, school-loving little person and you realise you have to INTERRUPT THE MONDAY ROUTINE HALF WAY THROUGH SCHOOL TO GO TO AN OCCUPATIONAL THERAPY APPOINTMENT EVERY TWO WEEKS.

Sorry to shout, but only caps would do to express my fear of interrupting Amelia’s weekly routine – of getting between her and her beloved school – and living to tell the tale.

Amelia has grown used to going to speech therapy sessions and other medical check-ups in the morning and then heading on to school. She doesn’t love it, but she’ll tolerate the anomaly. It has a sequential flow she can understand. Plus the end destination is school.

This new arrangement was going to involve me attending school on a Monday for our regular on-site speech session with the lovely CN, and then altering the usual pattern of things by taking Amelia to see her OT. By the end there’d be little time to go back to school so it would make sense to go straight home.

‘Maybe it’ll be ok…?’, I thought with fake optimism.

But a full week before the first appointment, Amelia turned to me out of the blue and declared, ‘No OT on Monday, Mum. I don’t like it. We do speech then I stay at school. Go home on the bus’.

She could not have been clearer about her feelings. I didn’t say too much in case I upset her even more, but I had a familiar sinking feeling about how day one of this change in routine was going to pan out.

On the morning of the new Monday world order, all was going well until speech wrapped up and I turned to Amelia and said, ‘OK, it’s time to go and see your OT now, Meels’. Yeah, right.

It was like she’d been fired out of a cannon, such was Amelia’s sudden and violent desire to escape me and the dreaded idea of leaving school that day. Sling-shot like, she flung her body out of the room and into the school foyer, screaming loud protestations as she went.

I chased after her and CN was hot on my heels. Amelia had sprinted through the foyer and was close to the hallway that led back to her beloved classroom. I did my best to stop her without being overly physical but she was already yelling the school down.

She was NOT going to go gently into that good car park with me, no matter how much I cajoled her or made rash promises of coinage, chocolate cake or park visits on the way home.

Last year, without the insight into the ASD behaviours that drive my child’s engine, I might have tried to drag her with me, force the issue, make her do what I wanted until we collapsed in a tear-soaked heap in one of the many public spaces across Melbourne to witness our mutual humiliation.

Now, I am much quicker to accept a situation like this on its immediate merits, and back off if backing off is required. I looked at Amelia’s stricken face, her sweaty brow, heard the panic in her screams and summed it all up in a matter of seconds.

Turning to CN, who was a supportive presence by my side (sometimes you want people to flee the scene of a meltdown and leave you, this was not one of those days), I shrugged and said, ‘It’s not going to happen today, is it?’ She could only agree.

The brilliant simplicity of a visual schedule

The brilliant simplicity of a visual schedule

And though my plans had failed for the moment, CN chimed in straight away with an idea that was brilliant in its simplicity. She would create a tailor-made visual schedule (see picture) to use on the Mondays when Amelia was due to see her OT.

CN would create one for us to use at home with cards depicting images or photos of things like, ‘bus’, ‘school’, ‘speech session’, ‘OT appointment’, and so on. She would also keep an identical copy at school and spend time during the week talking it over with Amelia.

Amelia’s amazing teacher, PR, was also involved in the planning and offered to discuss the Monday routine with her in class and normalise it as far as possible.

My contribution was to offer to take Amelia back to school after the OT session, even if it was for just an hour, so that she could finish out the day and come home on the bus, restoring some kind of lost balance to her schedule.

It sounds pretty straightforward, but as soon as these strategies were put in place we saw an immediate improvement. With greater visual explanations of what was happening and some time to process the change, Amelia was far more open to leaving the school with me the next time around.

We finished speech, went along to see her OT for a cooperative and happy session and made it back to school for the last activity of the day. The drop off was a bit fraught, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and changes to Amelia’s routine were not going to be solved overnight.

The next fortnight ticked over and I arrived at Amelia’s class to collect her for speech. Her teacher pulled her in close and re-explained what would be happening next.

She suggested that this time when I brought her back to school, Amelia might like to walk back from the front office to class by herself, like a big girl. Like she does in the mornings with the class roll. Amelia nodded in silent but relaxed agreement.

Every two weeks, CN, PR and I were like a crack squad, making tiny but crucial refinements to ‘Plan: Get Amelia to the OT and Back’ and our efforts were paying off. I can’t thank them enough for their intuition, care and support.

When I at last took Amelia back to school, she skipped inside without stress or fear. I gave her a soft hug and said, ‘OK chicken, it’s time for you to go back to class now. All by yourself, like a big girl’.

She smiled at me and the expression stretched wide across her countenance like the brightest rainbow in the sky. It held all the colours of acceptance and shades of sincere thanks for delivering her back into the warm bosom of school.

Because Amelia loves that place like I love Marlon Brando and potato chips, or indeed like Marlon himself loved potato chips; truly, madly and without regret.

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Careful she might (not) hear you

I’M NOT sure precisely when I started worrying about the social impact of my daughter Amelia’s deafness. Maybe it was the day I read too much online about how isolating, confusing and downright exhausting social experiences can be for deaf kids, always up against it in the hearing world.

Daunting words in bold-face leapt out at me from the computer screen. Sharp-edged ones like, depression. Anxiety. Paranoia. And anger. That one always seemed to be in italics for maximum impact.

It’s not a doom-sayer’s checklist – ‘nasty things coming your way when you’re raising a deaf child’ – but it is a set of emotional risk factors that can’t be taken lightly.

My aim as a parent is to hopefully reduce their power to hurt my daughter on her path between two contrasting worlds, deaf and hearing.

Amelia is not quite six years old and we have only known about her deafness for a tick under four years. It’s not a long time in the grand scheme of things. But already I see just how easy it is for her as a deaf child to be left out or excluded by virtue of her difference to other people.

Let’s take birthday parties as a classic example. Oh birthday parties, how I hate thee with a passion. It’s unavoidable, but kid’s parties are the worst kind of place for a deaf child to feel a part of the natural order of things.

Because they’re too loud, too chaotic, too MAD for Amelia to make sense of what is going on around her. Sure, she wears hearing aids but they are next to useless in the face of such an intense racket. Those little devices can’t sift the wheat sounds from the cacophonous chaff and so she is mostly lost.

I watch her making her way with excited bewilderment around these parties and I feel like throwing a huge, warm blanket over her. Underneath its soft layers, background noise would be reduced to a gentle hum that would not compete with voices speaking clearly in merry conversation.

In either context Amelia is alone. ‘Alone’ in the noisy crowd, or by herself beneath the blanket I throw over her every day when we come home and I can set things up exactly as she needs them to be.

It is because of this potential for loneliness that I love being able to send her to a school for deaf children. When I visit Amelia there and see her with her classroom comrades, it’s sometimes hard to see where she starts and they finish.

The joy of school etched on her face.

The joy of school etched on her face.

These six classmates have been together for almost two years now and they are incredibly close. Whether they speak or sign to each other there is something almost organic about how they interact.

It’s born of the time they’ve spent bonding as friends but it is also the result of their shared identities as bilingual deaf kids. Communication between these children operates on a plane of mutual instinct and understanding; touching or tapping to gain attention, waving to be seen or heard, using gesture to add meaning: all form the basis of a code that marks them out as members of a club, a culture.

Within this rarefied environment, Amelia and the knowledge required to be with her and make her feel like an insider are known to everyone. I never need to worry about a scary thing like social isolation.

Seeing how crucial communication is to Amelia and her sense of belonging, it is all the more important for us, her hearing family, to be diligent about always involving her in social activities and conversations.

When we have friends over to visit, she becomes highly agitated and manic when there is a lot of conversation happening across her, between adults engaged with each other rather than with her.

Amelia yells at us over and over again to explain, “What are you talking about? What are you talking about?!” She throws her body into the mix too, placing herself in our eye line so we don’t ever forget she’s there waiting to be included.

Of course she needs to learn when to wait her turn (good luck) and it is less than socially optimal for us to have to keep stopping and explaining each story to her, but it is her right to be factored into the cut-and-thrust of social chatter.

It is much harder for Amelia to find her way in larger social situations where competing sounds blend into a baffling wall of confusing sounds and she sort of disappears under the radar, unable to get her bearings without a hearing compass to guide her.

This is where our greatest challenge lies, in reminding other people to take a minute to stop and talk to her, lean down close to her face so she can see their lips when they are speaking, use their hands to make the meaning of their words clearer. To see her and invite her in.

In reality, it doesn’t take much to make a child like Amelia feel involved AND accepted. I see this every time we spend time with our closest friends, GH and NB and their boys. It’s so uncomplicated, the way they ask Amelia how to sign certain words, to share her second language with them.

I watch Amelia’s eyes light up with pleasure as she shows them how to sign ‘turtle’ or ‘hippo’ in Auslan. They sign the words back to her and, hey presto, she’s in their world and they are in hers.

We recently went on holiday together and stayed in the same cottage. At night time as we were getting our kids ready for bed, there was always some story-time happening in the lounge room.

Sign of the times: Amelia and Jem take their friendship to the next level.

Sign of the times: Amelia and Jeremy take their friendship to the next level.

Unprompted on the first night, Amelia grabbed a book and sat next to our friends’ youngest boy. She opened the first page and started telling him the story completely in Auslan, with her voice ‘switched off’. I’ve never seen her do that with anyone outside of her family or deaf friends before.

And he loved it, watching her hands describe the flow of river water or the fire expelled by a scary dragon. Amelia repeated this routine each night, and I could tell she felt proud to be like a big sister to her sweet little friend, able to teach him something new. It is lonely to be an only child too.

Sometimes I think it’s children who know best how to cut through all of this stuff and find some valuable common ground.

Like the other day when Amelia was with her Dad in the park and she ran over to ‘talk’ to some older boys, aged maybe nine or ten.

Her speech wasn’t really up to an in-depth gossip session but she had a mighty crack anyway. In these situations she tends to make a lot of noise, such as loud bird-screeching sounds and flaps her arms around, in her often-strange attempt to say ‘hi’ and make friends.

One boy saw Amelia’s hearing aids and asked her Dad if she was deaf, which he confirmed. “Oh, we thought she was disabled or something but then we saw her hearing aids”.

The boys then welcomed Amelia into their group and hung out with her. They had zero anxiety about approaching her in the ‘wrong’ way. They got the hard questions out of the way early and then all there was left to do was play.

And it wasn’t that they were tolerating her presence, the boys actively shared their games and conversations with Amelia. They let her hold their hands and there was mutual enjoyment of the time spent together in a small park in the suburbs.

I know that this was a special event because of the way my husband told it to me. He spoke about that main boy reverentially, because for about fifteen minutes he took our daughter into his world and any present worries about her just melted away.

Her isolation, and my husband’s, were delayed for an afternoon, halted by the friendliness of those boys and their easy acceptance of Amelia.

And so was mine. Social isolation isn’t just a huge risk factor for deaf children, rather it applies to their parents too. Because for every child or adult who ‘gets it’ there are so many others who don’t and that is an alienating fact indeed.

Thankfully at the moment, Amelia isn’t really cognisant of the people who accidentally ignore her, nor does she seem to feel the exclusionary effects of situations in which she is a natural outsider. The big job for us as she grows is to try and minimise the impact of this kind of isolation on her generous little heart.

All we can hope for is that there are enough loving family members, cool boys in the park and sweet little friends who enjoy their story time in Auslan to protect her from the feelings of loneliness when they come. And try though we might to stop them, they will come.

The ice girl cometh

Warrior girl with water weapon

RECENTLY I found myself caught up in the wacky Ice Bucket Challenge sweeping Facebook feeds the world over. You might have seen one of these videos, where some poor, charitable soul stands nervously in a suburban backyard, waiting to be drenched with ice-filled water by delighted relatives enjoying their role a little too much.

Yep, that was me a few weeks ago. I was ‘tagged’ by my good friend CM to take up the challenge and once you’re ‘it’ there’s no such thing as ‘keepings off’ or ‘barley’.

So I stumped up and took my freezing cold medicine. For the good of the cause (motor neurone disease) and because I didn’t want to be called a wuss. I know, I’m not about to win a humanitarian of the year award.

But I do know someone who would have taken that ice bucket challenge by the horns and never let go. She would have relished it, and asked for more and more buckets until she’d beaten the Guinness Book of Records benchmark that might apply to a weird new age phenomenon such as this.

Who is it, you ask? Some hard-skinned ranger type who feels no pain and crushes all opponents in their wake? No, I’m talking about my five-year-old daughter Amelia, who is on the autistic spectrum and is wildly PASSIONATE about the sensation of very cold water on her skin.

I first noticed this strange sensory trait when she was about two and a half. One afternoon during the winter time, I saw her outside with a bucket of cold water she’d filled when I wasn’t looking. She proceeded to fill a smaller bowl with the water and pour it repeatedly over her head and quivering body. It was quivering with the cold no doubt, but also with powerful exhilaration.

For a moment I watched at the window, transfixed by the scene. Amelia’s beautiful round face was a study in elation, in euphoria. She appeared totally unbothered by the frigid temperature of the water. Instead, it was a delight to her and she welcomed it without fear or hesitation.

I was torn between wanting to leave her be for a while longer to enjoy being at one with the water, and the mothering instincts which compelled me to gate-crash this spontaneous garden party and throw a big towel over it. And her.

Other times I found her in our backyard with no clothes on, holding a gushing hose in the air so the icy plumes of water would fall straight down onto her head. Amelia treated the water with reverence, as something deeply special to her that only she could understand.

It’s true that my girl had never enjoyed warm water, especially in the shower. My attempts to add just a little more heat to the stream from above were always instantly detected. I couldn’t get past my child’s incredible sensitivity to the temperature and how it felt on her skin.

For quite a long time this need in her worried me a lot. Every time she’d ask for cold shower water as she sat in a shallow (warm) bath below, we’d wrestle with the taps and I’d think ‘I can’t let her sit in freezing cold water, can I?’ Old sayings about catching one’s death hovered close to my ear and increased my anxiety.

But Amelia doesn’t feel cold water the same way most people do. You only need to see her at the beach out of season when the water is still too chilly for mere mortals to enter; there she is – my little Tommy Hafey child – striding out determinedly, into the deep folds of all that delicious cold.

I think for Amelia, the love of cold water is a combination of the intense feelings she gets from the pressure of the spray and the glacial temperature itself. These elements create a sort of rapturous response in the nerve centre of her body – I can see it in the excited flapping of her arms, the full-body shuddering that makes her squeal likes she’s on the joyride of her life.

After years of watching her relationship with cold water unfold, I now understand that it isn’t bad for her the way it might be for a different child who could not tolerate the icy temperature at all. Or an adult forced to endure a freezing bucket of water tipped over their heads for the sake of charity.

Embracing the challenge of cold, cold water

Embracing the challenge of cold, cold water

Now most nights, after Amelia has agreed to conduct her clean-up in a ‘nice’ warm bath, I give her five minutes (give or take) under the arctic torrent from the shower overhead. I peak behind the curtain to steal a glimpse or two of her big, round face, held up in exaltation to the pure thrill of it.

Bath times have been harrowing for us for many years. The allowance for icy, cold water when my daughter desires it has made things a lot better. Sometimes it even calms her down, as though the (welcome) shock to her body from the shower helps quieten those other feelings that can send her out of control.

And in relaxing the house ‘rules’ around water I can also see a little glint of thanks in Amelia’s dark eyes. ‘Mum is finally working me out’, it says. She is giving me freedom to be myself. To take a million ice bucket challenges if I want to.

But it’s not a challenge for her at all, it’s simply a way of being, a way of life. Trust a child to be so deliberately fearless.

Amelia and the magic torch

For my fellow children of the 1970s.

For my fellow children of the 1970s.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that too many writers use the famous opening line from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to kick off their articles.

Yes, it’s a brilliantly ironic line (in the true non-Alanis Morissette sense) from a master writer, but I reckon it’s time to branch out and steal from other authors. Dickens does a nice line in, well, opening lines.

It is also a fact that the more my five-year-old daughter Amelia learns to communicate – in both speech and sign language – the more I am beginning to truly know her and understand the cogs that drive her quirky child-machine.

For the last few years it’s as though my husband and I have been engaged in an endless game of charades with our girl, or at least some kind of mind-bending puzzle, to try and work out what she wants, what she fears, who she is.

We had the picture on the box to guide us, but some key pieces had clearly escaped down the side of the couch.

In the past, if Amelia was unsettled or distressed at night for instance, we never really knew why. Was she sick? Did she have a headache or a sore stomach? Did she fear the dark that enveloped her room after lights out? We didn’t know and she couldn’t tell us. Her language skills just weren’t there yet.

So, we’ve been miming and prognosticating like crazy, making suggestions to her, offering theories to each other until I’m sure she just wanted to make like Greta Garbo and tell her mad parents she wanted to be alone.

Until recently, we had to rely on more explicit signs of Amelia’s preferences in life or trial and error solutions to problems raised by sudden outbursts of screaming or fear.

But I think there’s something magical about age five and the first year of school. Amelia has flourished and progressed in ways we never dreamed she would. Especially where her speech and language skills are concerned.

Every day since term one, I have been in a constant state of delighted awe watching my little girl rush from her bus to tell me about the exciting things she has done with her class.

Amelia will dive into her bag to show me the new book she is slowly beginning to read. Or the letters she learned to write that day. Two months ago, she could only write in reverse from the right of the page to the left. Now her writing compass has switched due-East and she is copying whole, legible words with increasing confidence.

But it’s the improvements in her speech and language, and with them the expression of her innermost thoughts, that we cherish the most. The other day, my husband heard Amelia talking to herself in her room about writing letters of the alphabet. “Mmm…I can do S, I can’t do a K, I can’t do E…”, and so on went her private recitation.

In this small example what I hear is Amelia’s deep interest in learning, her personal reflection on what she is able to do and what she is hoping to work out for herself in time. I can better understand her and I never want it to stop.

Last week, she woke up in the middle of the night which is generally out of character for her. When this happens we might hear crying or yelling to tip us off that something is amiss. This time though, her voice flew out into the hallway with a single, urgent message: “I’m scared! I’m scared!”

There it was. An answer to a shift in behaviour before a question had been signed or spoken. When I went in to see her she repeated her fears by furiously signing ‘scared’ on her chest over and over again. Amelia could not have been clearer about her feelings.

We were able to calm her down but it was obvious that we needed to learn more about what was frightening her so. The next morning I met her at school for her Monday speech therapy session with the lovely CN.

Partway through the session, the subject of Amelia’s early waking came up. Without any probing she said, “I’m scared of my room”. I tucked that little clue under my arm and later in the evening I had a chance to probe her about what she feared so much about her room.

I asked, “Amelia, what are you scared of in your room at night?”

She didn’t miss a beat, “I’m frightened of the black dark”. She emphasised black dark with a punctuating rise in volume to make sure we knew just how spooky it was.

I continued, “The black dark? You don’t like the dark when the lights go out?”

“No, I don’t like it. I’m scared.”

Now we knew for sure what was wrong, I said, “Amelia, would you like me to put your red torch on and leave it on your shelf after you go to sleep? It’s a special, magic light and it’ll keep the black dark away”.

I was reaching back into my memory to a cartoon called Jamie and the Magic Torch. My brothers and I would re-enact the magical properties of Jamie’s torch in my room with a mirror that reflected a circular shape on the wall. I was afraid of the black dark too.

I turned on Amelia’s torch to show her how the kaleidoscopic colours would glow warmly in that black dark. She really liked that idea, shouting triumphantly, “go away black dark, go away!” Her hands slashed mightily through the air as she shooed her imaginary terror out of sight.

After Amelia was safely tucked up in her bed and snoring softly, I switched on her magic torch, ready to stand guard over the scary darkness. The night passed without event. There was no screaming from her room, no movement, no sounds of fear or anxiety. The torch won.

In the morning, my daughter who now has whole conversations with me, said, “I like the little dark, not the big dark”. Amelia was saying to me that the torch had taken the edge off the dark for her and made it better. She was not feeling so scared anymore.

Some people find Amelia’s voice hard to understand and she is shy to share her speech with people outside of school and home. I know people who are surprised when I tell them that she can speak at all.

I also notice that she doesn’t sign as much when she is around people she doesn’t know very well. Perhaps that is a language she associates more with her deaf school friends, teachers and close family members who share it with her.

But now she’s talking and signing like a demon at home, she never, ever stops. Unless she is without her hearing aids when she’ll tell me earnestly, “Mum, I can’t talk…we need sound”. I have a new understanding that Amelia doesn’t like to talk a lot without her aids in.

As per our routine, I put them in yesterday morning and she beamed at me and said, “Now I can talk! You talk Mummy, GO”. It was an instruction, not a request. I said, “Hi baby girl!”

Her answer was short but ever-so-sweet. “You can talk, Mummy. You can”.

In safe hands we trust

"Never trust anyone", says "Popeye" Doyle. Amelia would not disagree.

“Never trust anyone”, says “Popeye” Doyle. Amelia would not disagree.

A few months ago, my four year old Amelia fell over at kindergarten and hurt herself pretty badly.

It appears that she had been playing on a boat-like structure in the playground and tumbled somehow, her face taking the brunt of the collision with whatever hard surface met her fall.

No-one’s really sure, because the fall itself wasn’t witnessed by her carers.

Amelia was found sitting quietly to the side of the play area with her hands covering her face. She wasn’t crying. She wasn’t making a sound.

The first adult to approach her saw a dark red substance pooling under her hands and onto the bridge of her nose. “Amelia, have you got paint on your face?” No, turns out it was blood and a fair bit of it too.

In vain, her lovely carers tried to offer her help, to clean her wound, to see if she had broken her nose, to apply a cold compress – to help their little charge. But Amelia wasn’t having a bar of it.

By the time I reached the centre, she was clutching a dirty, blood-stained tissue to her face and would not remove it. On seeing me, I watched her face change a little, registering some kind of release. Her lips quivered and her eyes filled with tears.

Amelia was obviously relieved to be taken into my care and the momentary warmth of my embrace, but she never lost control. She held onto herself and the pain and let me take her home.

I’ve wondered a lot about this incident since. It’s not that my daughter doesn’t feel pain, not at all. But the cost of showing that she is hurt is that people will come at her with their unwelcome hands and heightened emotions.

So, Amelia would prefer to sit quietly and take the pain than risk the unwanted attention of pesky Good Samaritans.  Imagine the self-possession of someone like that. The will that it takes not to cry despite great pain at four years of age.

It makes me worry for her, because as much as I want to respect her limits – those defensive walls she needs to erect between herself and the world – everyone needs a little nurturing some of the time. Noses need to be checked for breaks and blood has to be washed clean.

But how do we make Amelia feel safe enough to let us parent her? How can we help her to soften her tough-guy “Popeye” Doyle exterior enough to be comforted?

Amelia leaping into a brave new world and the safe arms of her OT.

Amelia leaping into a brave new world and the safe arms of her OT.

I was at a bit of a loss with all of this until September this year when we started working with our Occupational Therapist, MM. Her intuitive, hands-on treatment program has created some space for Amelia to let her guard down a touch and open herself to new guiding hands.

For a child like mine with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Occupational Therapy (OT) sessions serve multiple functions. They are designed to be open and flexible so that she doesn’t feel overwhelmed or pressured.

Through this loose structure, MM is building trust, but there are rules too. If we start a new game or activity, the old one has to be cleaned up and packed away.

If Amelia kicks up a fuss about having to conform to these rules, we do not bend or back away. We just wait until she is calm enough to play again.

The effect is to create a safe environment where Amelia feels a degree of control and a lot security at the same time as her social skills are being tested and developed.

She is being taught how to wait, how to negotiate, how to live in a world governed by rules and the needs of others.

Gradually, I have watched my tough, inflexible girl change from someone who was frequently intolerant of the (not unreasonable) demands MM places upon her in each session, to a mostly willing and enthusiastic participant.

Amelia is beginning to shed a layer of deeply engrained fear and anxiety and is more ready to be guided, touched and taught than ever before.

Some appointments are held entirely in a brilliant sensory room filled with cushions, mats, swings and slides. In this room, we are testing the types of activities and sensations that work best to calm Amelia down, regulate her often haywire senses and give her lots of stimulation without triggering meltdowns.

There’s a large swing in the centre of this space that requires a lot of balance to stand or lie on it. At first, Amelia was reluctant to try it. But very quickly she became keen to jump on board, with me as her initial passenger.Then she graduated to swinging solo, knowing that if she fell there were mats underneath to break her fall.

In essence, that’s what these sessions are all about: providing a safe platform for risk-taking and bravery. For going beyond the limits of Amelia’s slowly expanding comfort zone.

These days she is like a Cirque du Solei trapéziste in training while looking unquestioningly to her coach, MM, for encouragement. Lying on her stomach, Amelia is encouraged to pull herself forward holding ropes or MM’s hands, locking eyes with her in total trust.

I will never tire of seeing her face like that – so alive with the happiness of letting herself go, of flying without fear when there is a safety net ready to catch her no matter how high or fast she might go.

The swing involves tough core work, the kind that would challenge the most avid gym junkie, and it is teaching Amelia to push herself beyond the point of frustration to greater strength and confidence. She is now more aware of her body and what it can do. And it can do so much.

There are of course rewards for this level of commitment. The other day, after the tiring physical activity of the session was complete, MM invited Amelia to lie on the floor as the ‘meat’ in a cushioned ‘hamburger’. One thick mat was placed on the floor and without hesitation my girl lay face down on it, waiting excitedly for the next fun thing.

It was relaxing just to watch Amelia in still repose.

It was relaxing just to watch Amelia in still repose.

The therapist then grabbed a second mat and pressed it onto Amelia’s back, applying deep pressure to her small body.

After the exertion of the physical work, this pressure clearly had an instant soothing effect, bringing her sensory levels down to a calm place where balance was restored.

Then, MM took a small Swiss ball and moved it over Amelia’s body in circular motions, applying more pressure to her prone figure. I have never seen her so still, so content. So relaxed.

Her eyes rolled back in her head and she closed them for a time, simply enjoying the bliss of the deep massage.

In this pose I could see her register, perhaps for the first time, that touch does not have to be feared or rejected and it can offer so much more than mere hands or bodies making incidental contact.

In her OT sessions, Amelia is stretching herself to new physical heights and we are all learning how long it takes to exhaust the seemingly boundless energy that burns inside her. Her social skills are improving and she is beginning to appreciate the benefits of contact tailored to suit her needs.

I am discovering that there are many more ways to reach my daughter than I ever thought possible. MM has helped me to understand and accept that when Amelia hurts herself or is in need of comfort, it is not a rejection of me if she cannot tolerate my arms around her for more than a second.

She may never let me hold her the way I still long to but Amelia does need the security of contact and care, just not in the way most people expect of a child.

So, I will be more than happy to let the cushions, mats and balls we have acquired for our home therapy program be an extension of my mother’s arms – reaching out to be close to her, offering protection, relief and all the love I can give.

To infinity and beyond

Stage rocket, sending data back to earth

What’s that famous tagline from Ridley Scott’s movie, Alien? ‘In space no-one can hear you scream’.

It somehow came to mind last week in the lead up to the music concert, ‘A Trip to Space’, staged by my daughter Amelia’s school for the deaf.

I hadn’t been paying proper attention to the school newsletter updates about the concert.

I sort of knew it was happening and my husband and I had sold wads of raffle tickets to raise money for the music program, but I had assumed it was only for the older kids at the school.

Phew, I thought. No need to get all stressed out about a new social event with its terror-inducing unknowns for a family that really hates, well, unknowns.

Then it dawned on me a few days from the big rocket launch. Amelia, along with all the other kids from the school’s Early Learning Centre, was expected to attend. And participate. And perform. And we, her fellow rookie astronauts, were to accompany her and watch either a spectacular lunar lift-off or a fiery re-entry to earth.

Regardless, it was to be our maiden voyage into the unchartered world of child pageantry and by Monday I was reaching for my inner sick-bag. I’ve seen Gravity, so I know that space is not for the faint-hearted. There’s a lot of debris out there. And occasionally Sandra Bullock. Who knew if we would make it out alive?

Little notes and pictures started arriving home in Amelia’s kinder bag with instructions about her costume for the night – black clothes from head to toe. Although I was still undecided about whether I would even let her go, I dutifully went out and found the garments she would need. The Right Stuff, as it were.

Then her space training went into over-drive. There was a mid-week rehearsal at the concert venue, a local school hall, and Amelia came home to me pumped to the eyeballs with the mysteries of the world beyond the earth’s atmosphere.

She began humming odd tunes around the house that I’d never heard before. New signs to describe the upcoming event suddenly appeared in her Auslan vocabulary. Her imagination was captured by the importance of her special voyage ahead.

Who was I to stand in her way? When I discovered that all but two of her fellow classmates would be on stage with her, I had to take the plunge. Into that black hole where new experiences lurk with the promise of success and the portent of failure.

I talked it over on the morning of the concert with our family psychologist, JM, who supports us with Amelia’s autism. I confessed my nervousness about the night and she simply asked me: What’s the worst that could happen?

I guess I had visions of my girl struggling to cope and turning on a mighty meltdown within the first two minutes and we – her Dad and I – would tread those familiar boards of embarrassment as we beat a hasty retreat to our car with a screaming banshee in our arms.

People would look at us and judge us to be bad parents of an uncontrollable child. JM reassured me that these negative thoughts were far from the reality of what those families – all with special needs children – would think.

The most important thing was to offer Amelia the chance to be a part of something nurturing and above all, fun.

I am ashamed of my pessimism, of how far I underestimated my daughter, but it is a cold, hard fact of my time as a parent that many family missions are aborted shortly after take-off and there’s no amount of planning you can implement to avoid metaphorical meteor showers.

Pessimism is terribly corrosive because it holds me back from being open to the possibility of change and growth but it is also my friend, ready and on guard to protect me from the risk of heart-break.

But negative feelings are there to be conquered and, like all good colonialists, my husband and I took a collective breath and made the journey anyway. Win or lose, we had to try and we had to hope which is far better than hiding from your own life. Or, far more deplorably, denying your only child a wondrous space adventure.

And it is no exaggeration to say that the concert was close to the best night of our lives. From the moment we stepped out of the car and Amelia ran to join her friends and run with them on the school oval, the planets that had scattered within our orbit suddenly aligned.

The kinder group was scooped up and marshalled expertly by one of their incredible teachers, RS, and before we knew it, our girl was led away from us to get ready and we were free to sit. Just sit. And watch the wonderful performance unfold before us.

We did not need to mitigate or negotiate. I kept waiting for the BAD THING to happen but it never did.

The school had Amelia in its care and, as it has so often this year, it enveloped her in its safe embrace and she was happy to be separate from us. To belong to another group of trusted adults and children. To belong to herself.

Of the 18 numbers performed in Auslan, voice, instrument and dance on the night, Amelia appeared in four magical moments. As debuts go, I put it in the class of say, Barbra Streisand’s captivating introduction to film goers in Funny Girl. Although there’s an outside chance I could be displaying some parental bias.

In any case, my little one took it up to Babs in the show-off stakes and no mistake.

She was a shocking lair up on stage. Whether she was hamming it up with her space walk, her scene-stealing turn on the bongos, or vividly signing the ‘I’ve Got a Grumpy Face’ song, Amelia was lit from within by one sight – her audience. And we couldn’t tear our eyes from her.

After the opening act set to Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra (what else?), she bowed deeply, repeated it with her patented Pimpernel hand flourish, then strutted along the stage line and did a few jazzy hand wiggles at her face before standing at the top of the stairs and offering a sombre salute. A salute.

The spotlight was hers to own and she was loving every second of it.

My husband and I have never laughed so hard or been so proud of a single person or event in our lives. Our hearts were fit to burst from the sight of Amelia’s confidence, her presence in the moment. For a deaf girl with autism that is no mean feat, in space or otherwise.

I’d always watched sappy American sitcom renditions of school concerts with a mixture of cynicism and scorn. But that was before our own journey into that world, where our daughter showed us that she is already light years ahead of where we sometimes imagine she is, emotionally and socially.

Amelia spent an hour and half going on stage and off and staying patiently with her merry band of space cadets. There was no crying or screaming or running away. She knew where we were and felt secure enough not to keep seeking us out.

And when she returned to us she looked different to my eyes and it wasn’t just the addition of the silver jetpack to her shoulders or the bright star now stuck to her chest.

Because when I looked at her this time I saw only possibilities. The dark matter that often weighs heavily on my mind turned to moon dust for an evening and was replaced by a feeling so radiant it would have outshone the sun.

And that was all before Amelia won the raffle prize – a chocolate hamper fit for an overacting astronaut on her first flight into the beyond. (To be strictly accurate, my husband’s name was on the ticket, but who could deny Amelia another victory on such a glorious occasion?)

At night’s end, we walked to the car with the other families calmly exiting the building. Just plain old walking with laughter and excitement as our soundtrack. Our feet were on the ground but for the next few hours my heart remained in space, and my eyes stayed firmly on the stars.

It’s a small world after all

When I had a baby, one of the things I expected was that my world would contract while our little girl, Amelia, worked out how to live outside of the tightly confined space of my body after nine long months.

Nothing can really prepare you for the intensity of that newly contracted space as the changed dynamic of a family of two adults adjusts to life as three, including one small person who is completely defenceless and totally needy.

But the thing that got me through the life-changing chaos of those early days was the promise of growth, of progress – of the eventual expansion of that changed world we now occupied. Its limits would open out to include old experiences temporarily shelved or new ones we had yet to discover.

Expansion could mean anything, like us being ready to go outside and take a walk with our baby in the pram. Or feeling able to sit down at a café and order a coffee while (fingers crossed) she slept. Just 10 minutes, not long, to feel like moments of the old life could be incorporated into the new.

During the first year, progress included things like visiting people or taking short trips together. Our first holiday was a driving expedition across the state for two fabulous weeks. Amelia was seven months old and apart from the logistical challenges and the cold weather, we created some of our best family memories on the road.

The world of our family grew at about the pace you would expect – just fast enough to adapt to the challenges of each main stage. We imagined that this expansion would just go on and on. And hopefully, it would bring more SLEEP (it didn’t).

Our ambitions for growth extended to things like going to the zoo, the circus, the movies, or that brilliant outdoor production of The Wind in the Willows performed in Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens every summer. Amelia would join other children and follow Toad, Rat and Mole down the River Thames.

Silly things, I guess, but they’re the stuff that parental dreams are made of, at least for us. You picture sharing magical new events with your child and it’s only a matter of time before you get there.

But it’s not. Not for us, anyway. Before Amelia turned three, I thought for sure we were on track to growth and progress but since then (and with the escalation of her autistic behaviours) our world has been steadily contracting again, even where seemingly trivial things are concerned.

It’s not exactly like the first few months of Amelia’s life, that almost suffocating isolation of early parenthood, but some days it’s not far off.

Even ‘easy’ activities like going for walks to the park, or actually being at the park have become fraught with danger and the promise of failure.

Last weekend the sun greeted us upon waking so we thought, ‘why not try for a walk outside and see how we go?’ We jumped into the car and headed to a lake area with a lovely walking track and playgrounds at either end.

But we didn’t get too far. About 100 metres actually, in about 40 minutes of movement in large, frantic semi-circles punctuated with frequent tantrums while fellow families streamed serenely past on bikes, scooters or just on foot, ever moving forward while we stayed in one place.

The ease of their walking and forward progress, this evidence of how different their lives are to ours, made me feel desperately alone.

If I do manage to get Amelia to a playground (usually by car for sanity’s sake), she will invariably become anxious or angry about some indefinable thing and so we have to leave. It’s like she’s suddenly forgotten how to just be at a park, how to play on the swings and slides and enjoy herself.

The zoo (like any busy, public place) is a nightmare venue to take Amelia and I have tried it several times. She doesn’t really understand how she’s meant to behave or what she’s supposed to be looking at. Such a shame for a girl who loves animals so much.

The sights and sounds seem to overwhelm her auditory and visual senses so we cover little ground before another meltdown kicks in and our departure becomes long overdue.

I used to visit my Mum frequently to break up the stress of the days spent at home, and Amelia always enjoyed this time with her beloved Nan. Now she becomes highly fearful and angry at the mere suggestion of going there so I’ve had to cross that safe house off our list for the time being.

If I manage to convince her to go there, Amelia will begin insisting that we leave as soon as we have arrived and repeat this request incessantly into my face or by urgently curling my hand into the Auslan sign for home until I acquiesce. You can see it’s hardly worth the stress.

So, for the most part, the world has contracted once again to the boundaries, nay the limits, of our family home. The walls have closed in and sometimes it’s hard to breathe. Sure, we can enjoy the garden together, the lovely outdoor spaces when the weather allows, but some days that doesn’t feel like enough.

It’s school holidays right now and those weeks are by far the worst. Not for reasons you might expect – I love to have Amelia with me and to slow our routine down to a lazy jog rather than the frenetic sprint it usually feels like to get to kinder and the like. We make our own fun with paint, play dough, cooking and silly games.

No, what makes me feel so bereft at these times of the year is the painful exposure of just how small our world is, how limited the opportunities are for being out and about together.

Lots of other families get to plan things like long trips or day excursions or even just walks to the park. They say they’re going to do it and they just go and do it. Idea becomes reality; the run-of-the-mill activity or the special childhood dream event happens and the photos are added to the scrapbook.

The novelty of this is like a curio I’m peering at through a glass cabinet – I can see it but I can never reach out and touch it for myself. I’m told that things will get better and our world will expand once again but I can’t afford to create more fantasies that are beyond the capabilities of my daughter to fulfil.

It’s not fair on her and it just breaks my heart.

[For TR, who’s in the trench with me and I wouldn’t have it any other way.]