Miracle in Mosman Park

My daughter, J, (her name is under suppression order from the Federal Court following on from our successful Disability Discrimination case against Methodist Ladies’ College establishing her rights to an Educational Assistant trained in Applied Behaviour Analysis (link) was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2.  Last week she turned 9.

J has worked harder than most people could ever imagine….she has had extensive one on one intervention (20-40 hours per week) for the past 7 years.

She had the most severe level of diagnosis possible at age 2 – meeting all the criteria for an autism diagnosis to the highest level.  She also has a diagnosis of ADHD but when you have a profound autism diagnosis it’s almost impossible to separate the symptoms of either of these disabilities – needless to say, she’s the “jumpy, never sit still, boundless energy” type of kid with autism.   The one most in need of close instruction, but the one that just wants to run away – a massive daily challenge for all of us!

Her diagnosis meant she had a pervasive social delay and once we had ameliorated some of her language delay, we began to tackle the enormous task of teaching her to engage with her peers.

Prior to my children being born, I was completely naïve to child development and the complexity of learning that occurs prior to a child ever being able to engage with friends.  J has and continues to teach me and her teachers a lot about the precursor skills of being able to engage with others and particularly with her peers.

The challenge of getting her into a 3 year old kindy program was enormous.  It took me and an experienced therapist an entire term just to get her in the front door of the kindy without screaming the house down.  We had 2 amazing ladies (thank you Sheila and Shelly!) that allowed her to participate in what ever elements she could – their patience and understanding was phenomenal.

So when we finally got her into mainstream kindy and she was able to participate for a number of hours a week in the program with a full time experienced Educational Assistant trained in ABA, all of us were extremely excited and relieved.  I arrived to collect her from school one day to find her being pushed around by a group of girls in a cart and her with a big smile on her face.  It was a magical moment – it felt like I’d won the lottery.

6 months, and a huge amount of work, into the school year, and we receive a letter in the mail explaining that her therapist who had worked with her intensively for 2 years would no longer be allowed to attend school with her.  It was devastating, both to us but more importantly to J.

We have never been given a reason why the school objected to her attending with J, given she was an extremely experienced therapist and was well accepted by the teacher and the school, but the end result was that J was unable to attend school and she was without any socialization for 9 months.

It was a critical period of time for her, when her language was forming and she was beginning to show interest in her peers.  We worked tirelessly to get her back into the school where she enjoyed going so much, where I and my mother and aunty had attended and where my other daughter was enrolled.  We eventually began a Disability Discrimination case in the Federal Court and gave up on a school that was so resistant to have our beautiful daughter as part of their community.  It was an appalling indictment on a school that held themselves out as inclusive and accepting of difference.  The cost to J can never be accounted for.  I have an apology on my wall from the school admitting to them having discriminated against her to remind me never to stop fighting for her or her rights established by law and in human rights legislation: the basic rights of a child to an education.

That all changed when we found another school, J’s current school, and we found ourselves home to the most welcoming and inviting environment – a group of teachers that believed in her and a group of girls that I can only describe as “extra-ordinary”.

I will never forget the patience and compassion that her kindy teacher showed J.  J would have extreme tantrums over things like the colour of her shoes, or a broken pencil or anything unpredictable. I would arrive to school to find an exhausted and traumatised therapist who had only managed to keep J in class for 40 minutes before her extreme behaviours would require her removal from the classroom.  J’s teacher would say to the other girls “turn to the front of the class, J is having a bad day, let her calm down”; but not once did she ever judge me or her therapist, rather she celebrated the progress however small.  The girls learnt that J couldn’t do a lot of the things they could – from simply wearing a hat, to having her hair brushed, they were all massive challenges to her – so the ability to sit on a mat and listen for extended periods of time was like climbing Mt Everest for her.  They came to understand and came to see just how challenging life for her was.

3 years later, a massive amount of support and adjustment, and we have a Miracle in Mosman Park.  J still has a significant language and cognitive delay, but she has learnt to read and write, to participate in music and sport and to attend school all day.  However by far the most important skill that she has learned at school, is that her friends are fun, and helpful, and worth reaching out to.

I am at a loss to describe what these precious little girls do for J everyday.  They revel in her wins, they compensate for her challenges and they pave the way to make the world a little easier for her to be in.  They have the most amazing ability to engage with her through special games and to say just the right thing at the right time to get her to look at them and to assist her overcome something that is very difficult for her.

They are truly a very special group of girls, nutured by a very special school, that practices what they preach when it comes to accepting difference.  I will never be able to thank

This year J was having some big challenges in the playground at lunchtime.  In order that her therapist got a much needed break, I have been attending every day with her.  I have come to know her friends and watch first hand how much they adore her and take her under their wings each and everyday.  I leave the school each day uplifted by their patience and understanding and their willingness to learn how to engage with her.  I have one of her friends carrying her schedule, another carrying her motivation system and all of them asking amazing questions about complex behavioural concepts – really eager to learn how it is that J needs to learn.

I arrive each day to stories of what J has been able to do that day…often the girls jumping up and down with excitement to tell me something that happened that morning.

My most heartfelt thanks goes out to an amazing school with an incredible teaching staff from her first teacher who provided an environment for J to learn how to learn in, to her current teacher who is nothing short of an angel who revels in her achievements and allows J to learn to the best of her ability.  Particular thanks go to her Educational Assistant, Ruth, who is truly the most wonderful and patient teacher you could ever wish for.  These staff foster acceptance of and understanding of difference.   I will never be able to adequately express my thanks to the parents of the children who encourage their daughters to engage with J despite the challenges and hurdles.

It’s a great story of hope.  It’s nothing short of a Miracle in Mosman Park.