GEMMA Foxall and Liz Martin were teaching colleagues, then friends, then found out within a week of each other that their sons had severe autism.
Living in the relatively isolated town of Bunbury, three hours south of Perth, the two mothers quickly found they had to rely on each other even more.
They quickly discovered that without constant fighting on their part, simply living in regional Australia could be devastating for their children.
“Our kids are not going to succeed unless we find the right people,” Gemma, 34, told news.com.au. “It’s so difficult and so overwhelming. Autism really governs our life.
“Just going out of the house can be a challenge. It’s changed everything.”
Gemma and husband Rod’s son Peter, 3, was diagnosed when he was one. He is socially anxious, needs intensive teaching to learn anything and finds it hard to pay attention to people.
“He loves music,” Gemma, 34, told news.com.au. “He loves reading and numbers and things that can fly. He has lots of strengths and interests but he was only able to find them because specialists travel down to him.”
From left, Liz, Micah, Kai and Matt Martin.Source:Supplied
Both Kai, 7, and Micah, 4, have autism.Source:Supplied
Those experts would make the six hour round trip on a weekly basis at the beginning.
Gemma was the first person Liz, 48, told of her concern about her younger son, Micah, who was non-verbal at two years old. The now four-year-old was diagnosed shortly afterwards, and his older brother Kai, 7, was found to have a less severe condition five months later.
It has meant that parenting has been far more complicated than Liz and husband Matt, 44, ever expected.
“It really has taken over our world,” kindergarten teacher Liz told news.com.au. “You have to change how you do things. We’ve converted half our home into a therapy room for Micah.
“It’s challenging to get special services. At the start we always had to travel two-and-a-half hours to Perth.
“We don’t have the population to have all the support or best services. Travel is a big thing.”
Support from Gemma, who says the pair have “been on a journey together”, has been invaluable.
“When we have dark days, or sad days, we can have them together,” said Liz. “Emotional support is very important.”
Peter is socially anxious and needs intensive support. Specialists made the six-hour round-trip from Perth weekly when he was first diagnosed, aged one.Source:Supplied
Micah, right, has the most severe type of autism, while older brother Kai is lower on the spectrum and was diagnosed later.Source:Supplied
The two mums last year put on the first Regional Autism Expo at a local pub, promoting it on social media, and were amazed when the venue was packed with visitors. “People drove hundreds of kilometres to come,” said Gemma.
This year, they have a bigger venue at a sports centre with breakout rooms where attendees can escape the crowds and disabled access, since many people with autism also have neurological conditions including epilepsy and, as in Micah’s case, co-ordination disorder dyspraxia.
“We have families who struggle,” says Liz. “We want the choice of where to live, but if we had lived on the Wheat Belt we would probably have moved.
“Local service providers have exploded. Psychologists, physiotherapists, it is starting to grow. We needto keep awareness so as families we’re not isolated.”
Gemma is studying for a PhD to help her better understand her son and Liz has become a strong advocate for her sons. They hope to help other families cope with the challenges they face, and to improve understand of autism.
“We have had judgment,” says Liz. “Normally it’s from a lack of knowledge or awareness.
“Once people understand autism they’re normally amazing.”
Visit GoFundMe to donate towards the Regional Autism Expo, which takes place in April.