The 2nd of April was World Autism Awareness Day. Just search Twitter, Google, Facebook, or Instagram for #lightitupblue or #LIUB and you will find pictures of buildings, monuments, and the Wonders of the World all lit up blue for autism awareness. The Sydney Opera House, the Pyramids of Giza, Christ the Redeemer, and the Niagara Falls all lit up blue.
This day came to my attention about three and a half years ago. At the age of three, our son Wiremu was flagged at preschool for having very little verbal communication, and limited social interaction with other children. As our firstborn, we had dreams of raising a trilingual super-child (Samoan, Māori and English) and we assumed that because Wiremu was learning three languages, he didn’t speak as quickly. We also thought that Wiremu didn’t go out of his way to interact with other children because there simply weren’t that many children around. He loved the many adults in his life and was very close with his grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins.
When the Ministry of Education and all their specialists became involved at the beginning of what was to be more than a year long series of diagnoses, we really believed that they would find that there was nothing really different about our son. The truth is, autism is estimated to affect up to 40,000 individuals and their families just within New Zealand. It has a higher prevalence than Down’s Syndrome and cerebral palsy. Chances are, you know someone that is autistic or has a family member that is on the autistic spectrum.
Being the good librarian that I am, as soon as it became clear that Autism Spectrum disorder was a likely diagnosis for Wiremu, I went straight to the library catalogue and searched for resources on autism. My readings informed me that ASD is a complex developmental disorder involving delays in problems with social interaction, language, and a range of emotional, cognitive, motor and sensory abilities. Since then I have easily read, watched, and at least reserved (took one look and instantly returned) most things autism related within Christchurch City Libraries. At one stage, there was almost a whole shelf of books on autism in the relatively small community library that I was working in.
There was also lots of very informative websites like Autism NZ, and Facebook groups for parents with autistic children that were awesome e-support networks, online forums, and videos. I think as a parent or carer of a child with autism, it is firstly important to get your head around what autism is. I read book after book about these families of autists, but I found it so hard to fit what I was seeing at home into this stereotypical definition of autism. Wiremu is so loving, he is a wonderful judge of character, his smile lights up a room, and his giggles are infectious. He adores swimming, sausages, Michael Jackson, rainbows, his little brother Che and Mickey Mouse. He doesn’t know many personal boundaries, so if he likes you he will sit on your lap and give you a full kiss on the mouth.
Once you realise that autism presents itself so differently in every individual, and that there is no cure for autism it makes things easier. With the support of loving family, friends, a team of awesome specialists and some amazing teachers and teacher aides – and some good quality information – all things are possible. Wiremu is currently attending school, and is fully integrated into a Year 2 mainstream class with the help of his teacher and wonderful teacher aides. Just last month, he started writing letters without prompting and matching the letters of his name. As a family, Wiremu has taught us to slow our fast-paced lifestyle, to appreciate and celebrate the tiny but monumental achievements we make together everyday.
I have made up a reading list of some helpful autism resources for parents and families. Don’t be afraid to seek help, there are some wonderful people out there that are always willing to do what they can. And don’t always take no for an answer. #LIGHTITUPBLUE