By Kerry Warren Friday, April 1, 2011
When Julie Hawkins' third child was born, she and her husband thought they had "struck gold".
Unlike her two older siblings, baby Sarah was quiet, laid-back and had no problem sleeping for hours on end. But as their "perfect child" started to grow up, Julie began to notice that something might be wrong.
"With our older children, they had so many sleep problems and Sarah was the baby that was happy, seen and not heard," Julie says. "We initially thought we'd struck gold and had the perfect child.
"But then we noticed something was wrong. She was reaching all her milestones when it came to sitting up, crawling and walking but she wasn't responding to her name.
"Fortunately my mother-on-law is a special needs teacher, and she helped us. By the time we took her to the paediatrician, we were pretty much sure she had autism."
Sarah was informally diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum when she was just 18 months old, and formally diagnosed at three years old.
Julie admits she was upset when she realised Sarah was autistic, but quickly decided to make the most of the situation.
"We went to the doctor for confirmation, rather than a diagnosis, so we weren't shocked," Julie says. "That's not to say I didn't shed a tear when I got back to the car.
"Everyone wants their child to be 'perfect' but there are a lot of things that could have happened to Sarah that are a lot worse than autism."
Sarah is now eight years old. She attends a special needs school and ongoing therapy sessions and Julie says the family is stronger than ever.
"It's tough, but I think Sarah was sent to make us better, more understanding and compassionate," she says.
"One thing I am very adamant about is that we don't shy away from the fact that she is autistic. I've met people who are embarrassed about their children's disabilities but I think you have to speak up for your kids because they can't speak for themselves."
Tomorrow is the first day of Autism Month. Julie hopes Australians will notice this and decide to find out more about the autism spectrum.
She has faced many challenges raising an autistic child, but says one of the most difficult things is the reactions she gets from other parents when Sarah is "misbehaving".
"The looks I get in shopping centres because she's having a meltdown can be awful," Julie says. "Other parents don't understand that she isn't just being naughty. I hope more people use Autism Month as an excuse to find out more so that they can be a little bit more understanding and compassionate to me and all the other carers out there."
A helping hand
Julie says she and her family owe a lot to Autism Spectrum Australia, a not-for-profit group that provides education and support for autism sufferers and their families. Without the organisation, Julie doesn't know where she would be.
CEO of Autism Spectrum Australia Adrian Ford is thrilled Julie's family has blossomed with his organisation's help, but says there are thousands of others out there who deserve assistance and recognition.
"Parents with children who have an autism spectrum disorder face all sorts of challenges," Adrian says.
"Some families have to deal with the heartbreak of watching their children struggle to make friends; others have to accept that their children may find it difficult to speak and have to come up with other ways to help their children communicate.
"It can be a very isolating experience for a family, as well as for the person with autism. Autism Month is about awareness and acceptance, but it's also a time to celebrate the achievements of these people and their families, as well as the professionals who work with them."
Autism spectrum disorders affect one in every 160 people. It is a lifelong developmental disability that affects sufferers' social skills and ability to communicate and interact.