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Learning to Be Different

From an interview with Natasha Richardson
[Melisa Richardson]

When Natasha Richardson from Aruba in the Caribbean detected the first signs of autism in her daughter, Amanda, now aged six, she wanted to lend a hand in the development of quality service for all families dealing with autism in the island. She now works as coordinator of the Aruba Autism Foundation (see www.autismaruba.org), and Amanda attends normal school and appears on local television programs as an advocate for autism, which is estimated to affect 1 in every 110 globally.

My daughter, Amanda, was born a normal healthy girl, only she started babbling in her first hour--something that babies usually do at a later stage. Her first word was "mama," her second was "awa" (water), then she skipped "papa" and went to "tortuga," meaning "turtle." By the time she was a year old, she already had four languages--the four basic languages we speak on the island of Aruba: Papiamento, English, Spanish and Dutch. She could by then say "papa" and "mama," but scarcely called us to ask us for anything and wasn't interested in communicating with us what she needed or felt. But she was the perfect child, she didn't bother us, and she liked living on a strict schedule.

By the time Amanda was two, we realized there was something missing. She had started talking to us more, but never about things like "What did you do today?" No day-to-day communication, and very little hugging or touching. She would pull away from us. She had a lot of memories but could not place them in time. She had memories of when she was one year old that she would speak about when she was three. We had to teach her what time is, what sadness is--the abstract things you usually do not need to explain.

When Amanda was three, she would search YouTube for Chinese instruction videos, Portuguese songs. She went all-out on the languages. She went on to read, but we didn't know she could read, we just saw that sometimes she would say things like "I love you" if she saw it written somewhere. We thought, "That's not possible, we haven't taught her to read." Now she reads a lot, especially encyclopedias, and can talk about anything and everything.

Our cat Chelsea became very important to her, because Chelsea was the one who had feelings. Chelsea was angry, Chelsea was sad. She tried to communicate with us through the cat. We realized we needed to deviate from normal one-on-one communication with her, and we started using puppets to get her to speak about her day, about her feelings, what she wanted. She would interact with the puppets instead of us. Then I used mirrors to let her see my facial expressions, because she didn't want to look directly into my face. We'd stand behind her and teach her what my facial expressions meant when I was angry, when I was sad, happy, scared.

We saw also that she had issues with the imagination. She would scream if she saw somebody dressed as Elmo or some other TV character, and she would say, "On TV they're much smaller." We saw many things that related to the autism spectrum.

Amanda was officially diagnosed when she was four because she started kindergarten, and that's where the difference between her and the other kids became more visible. She still had the behavioral issues of a two-year-old. She would put everything in her mouth, she couldn't dress herself. She was diagnosed as an autistic savant with multiple language skills.

At kindergarten, because Amanda could read, the teachers would get her to read to the class in the different languages and present her interests in music and foreign countries. That was also to avoid bullying, because she would be bullied. She was usually called a baby, because she would spin around or jump up and down. Other kids would say, "You're like a baby because you still pee in your pants and you talk funny." We used her talents to show them, "Yes, I might have some baby stuff, but I also have stuff you don't have, and you can use that to your advantage if you are my friend."

Amanda and Natasha in the Netherlands, where Amanda experienced snow for the first time [Melisa Richardson]

Amanda is now six, and we are focusing on helping her develop her social and communication skills. We have to explain to her what is going on in different social situations, how you are supposed to react. She's at a level now where she can evaluate her day, what she did, what she felt in the situations she was in.

She knows she has autism, she speaks about it. When we go out with her, and if, for example, the waiter turns on the music too loud, she goes to them and says, "Hi, my name is Amanda. I have autism. My ears hurt if you turn up the music. So could you please keep it softer?" Or if they don't give her the menu, she says, "Hi, my name's Amanda, I have autism and I can read, so can I please have a menu?" But also she can say things like "I get hyper," or shows behaviors that she has less control over. She says things like "I got like this" (hand flapping). She has a book now she can use in class and tell the kids that she has autism. As soon as she gives us the green light, we will support her in this all the way! Mostly she thinks it's a normal thing. Amanda knows her strengths and weaknesses.

The struggle with all this is, "Is she really happy connecting to people?" I really have to work with her on that. It is important, because one day I won't be here anymore and she will have to communicate well with people. And that is my main question as a parent: when do I put my foot down and say really you have to meet more people, really you have to play with other kids, when she is not happy with that? Where do we draw the line? Because we want her to be happy, that's the main thing. And if she's happy learning information all the time, that's good for her, but we want her to still be social. But is it really what she wants; is it really what she needs? It's a fine line we balance upon as her parents.

[Melisa Richardson]

You have to have a lot of patience. I learn that anew every single day. For me, it's very important not to view her as having a defect. Everybody is born with a purpose, and we have to respect that purpose and help special children develop that purpose. We don't just want her to mimic other "normal" children.

My father used to be the director of a school for mentally challenged children. They have issues but they could really brighten up your day. That's a purpose, to show us not to take things for granted.

People look for big things in life, the thing that is going to make them famous or whatever. But no, it's very simple--you have to be happy. You don't have to do much, just be and be accepted the way you are, and accept who you are. You were made with a purpose, and once you find that purpose, know that purpose, you will have peace in your life.

According to the American Society of Autism, autism is "a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain, impacting development in areas of social interaction and communication skills." Because autistic behavior is not always apparent to those unfamiliar with autism, parents should be aware of what are possible early signs of autism, such as different behavior.

For more information see:

www.autism.com
www.autism-society.org
www.autism.org.uk
www.autismspeaks.org

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