Since April is Autism Awareness month, I’m sharing a little of my daughter Ashlyn’s story.
On the day the headmaster walked the sixty-odd paces from his office to the pre-school, the first warning bells should have gone off in our heads. It wasn’t a route he walked all that often in his busy schedule, but that morning he set out to discover why the piercing screams he had been hearing for the last forty-five minutes weren’t stopping. The relentless little screamer turned out to be our four year old daughter Ashlyn and—although this may have been one of the first—it certainly was not the last of the meltdowns she would have at school.
As Ashlyn grew older and the meltdowns didn’t stop, we started to feel some concern. Previously we had thought they were merely toddler tantrums, but by the time she reached the 5th grade, we were realising that this was not the case. Her classmates were starting to see it too, and Ashlyn bore the brunt of their teasing, which…triggered more emotional meltdowns.
Besides the teasing, there were other triggers to these emotional episodes: – stress; noise; the slightest perception of criticism; a sense of being overwhelmed, or a change of routine. The teachers often struggled to calm her down and, if they failed, I would receive a frantic call to come and fetch her. Soon I dreaded seeing “School” as the incoming call. Something had to be done.
That was when we turned to a medical professional, who diagnosed Ashlyn as having Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It was a rather shocking diagnosis for me. My knowledge of Autism was confined to what I had seen in movies such as Rain Man, leading me to imagine that a person with Autism is a severely impaired individual who might have savant-like abilities in maths or music. But, as a family we were about to begin a journey of discovery and growth that would disprove this narrow stereotype. In learning more about ASD, we would also start the process of understanding—and accepting—our unique and wonderful daughter.
From the time of the diagnosis, I started to read as much as I could about ASD, and specifically Asperger’s Syndrome (the high functioning part of the spectrum). I discovered that not all the information I read applied to Ashlyn, and it confused me until I realised that this is why it is called a Spectrum Disorder—every person is different. Many of the defining characteristics were evident though, such as the struggle to understand the expressions and nuances of language. Ashlyn’s very literal understanding often led to very funny conversations, and even now that she’s older and has learnt more expressions, we still have some giggle-inducing moments.
My reading also gave me an understanding of Ashlyn’s very narrow special interests. At that time, Ashlyn would spend hours and hours on the floor sorting her lego. The only books she would look at were Asterix and Obelix, despite every attempt to broaden her literary range. Now her passion is everything related to “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings”. She reads, talks about and imagines herself in Middle Earth much of the day. If you ever wondered who on earth would read the thick Appendixes of Tolkien’s books…Ashlyn would.
Besides educating ourselves, we also sought out support for our daughter. This came in the form of play therapy and a Social Skills Group, where she interacted with other children on the Spectrum. We saw slow but steady improvements in her behaviour with her schoolmates.
The diagnosis also empowered us to educate the teachers on dealing with Ashlyn. At the beginning of each new school year, we would have a ‘handing over’ meeting, where we and the ‘outgoing’ teachers discussed some teaching strategies with the ‘incoming’ teachers. School became a gentler environment for Ashlyn. Small changes—such as being allowed to leave the class when she felt overwhelmed or working alone instead of in a group—made a significant difference to her. As a parent I valued the sense of team work with the teachers, and no longer dreaded those school calls.
Ashlyn is thirteen now. It’s been nine years since the headmaster marched to the pre-school, and almost four years since the diagnosis of ASD. How very far she has come. This is reflected in countless little triumphs: – her school report is good; she has a group of accepting friends around her; she hasn’t had a meltdown at school in the last year; she came second in a regional maths challenge last year; and she played a solo violin item at a concert a few months ago.
As on any journey, I suspect we will reach a few more twists and turns on the road, but I am grateful that God gave us the privilege of parenting Ashlyn. I value her courage in dealing with a world that must often appear fearful and difficult to understand. I admire the fact that when she is passionate about something, she shows it wholeheartedly. I love her sweet, almost naïve perspective on life, and the joy and laughter she brings into our home.
Not too long ago I had a parenting moment that I will cherish. There was a new comment on the blog post I had just written about Asperger’s Syndrome. It was from Ashlyn and it read: “If there was a cure for Asperger’s I wouldn’t take it because I love myself and my world. It would never be the same.”
I feel the same way. Ashlyn has enriched our lives in countless ways and we love her just the way she is.
“Child of Mine” is a poem I wrote about Ashlyn.