Georgia, the third of four children born to my husband David and me, had developmental problems since birth, with swelling at the back of the skull. Her language didn’t progress and when she was almost 2 she began having seizures. At two and a half she lost the limited language and skills she’d developed. She had many tests, saw many specialists and was diagnosed with epilepsy. For several years Georgia only said four words, and only one of those was recognisable and used in an appropriate context. Accessing early intervention was difficult as the system seems to find children like Georgia too challenging. Fortunately, I had the skills and the knowledge to request the programs to support Georgia’s development. I used this valued information to develop a therapy program at home. It wasn’t until she was 6 that she was diagnosed with autism.
When I was a young teenager, I lived not far from a home for children with disabilities who couldn’t be cared for in their family homes. It seemed sad to me, so I would visit the home and spend time with the children, take those in strollers for walks and so on. I still remember reading a letter to a young boy with cerebral palsy, from his mother who lived in another state. He cried, and this changed me as I learnt how children with severe disabilities understand and comprehend their environment. Later I moved into early childhood care, and now I see all those experiences as preparation to be Georgia’s Mum.
Educating Georgia has been challenging. People can think that once there’s a certain level of disability, the school can’t provide. St Patrick’s Lochinvar stepped up and all were willing – learning support teachers Bettina and Mary Jane, classroom teacher Amber, principal Peter, the team at the Catholic Schools Office. They gave us the hope that this can work. Every day, Georgia’s shining more and more. She’s more confident, she has a connection with the school as a community, a connection with friends, a connection within the classroom, her sense of self worth and achievement in the classroom has improved. Her confidence and ease outside the classroom have grown because she now has role models among her peers. Even her various taxi drivers have noticed a huge improvement.
Georgia does things differently - that’s the way she is. Her ability to communicate and to use language has improved markedly. She belongs in an inclusive, mainstream community because she lives in a mainstream family. When our other children’s friends come to our home, Georgia can now engage more appropriately with them. She can tolerate more sensory stimulation because she’s been exposed to more stimulation on a regular basis. The inclusive school environment at St Pat’s is helping her in her life away from school. The teachers are building stepping stones to success, and every so often you move the stones closer together, other times you take them farther apart.
Since she’s been at St Pat’s, Georgia’s gained five kilos and that’s a great step forward for her. It tells me that she’s content here. Georgia accepts who she is, but our biggest challenge is her education. Children with autism ‘can do’, only a very small percentage can’t. It’s been a wonderful experience recently to hear Georgia report on some news that she learned from participating in a conversation with some of her classmates. Maybe her version wasn’t entirely accurate – not something confined to those with autism – but the important thing is that she felt part of that exchange. Georgia hasn’t always had that.
I’ve learnt a lot along the way. The parents, the students, the teachers have all accepted Georgia, and the gates have been wide open. One Mum told me she was glad that Georgia belonged to St Pat’s. Bettina says, “Georgia’s meant to be here.” All the teachers look out for her and that means a lot to her Dad and me, and to her siblings.
Childhood’s a transition to adulthood and as one of the children said here, she can’t be in bubble wrap! St Pat’s is building her capacity for adulthood and I couldn’t be happier.
I see what Georgia’s experienced as a living out of the school’s mission. Principal Peter Treloar is more than happy for any assistance Georgia needs to be provided; for example, a psychologist is working with her to encourage protective behaviours, part of the transition I mentioned earlier.
As a parent of a child like Georgia, you have to work harder and be there. You have a responsibility and if you want the best for her, you have to really support the school so it can play its part. It’s such a relief to see people seeing Georgia as a person first, and a child with a disability second.
The future? I haven’t thought that far. I’ve stopped planning too far ahead. I know what I would like for her as an adult: to be happy, to be confident, to have a measure of independence – to be able to catch a bus, shop, communicate effectively. Someone actually told me that Georgia would never have any friends! Who are we to determine what friendship is for each person? Georgia has more to offer friends and she is now defining her own friendships.
Georgia has a really uncomplicated life. If she’s sad or angry it is only for a moment, mostly she has a smile on her face. St Patrick’s understands the importance of multi-disciplinary teams involved with the care of children like Georgia. At times she has had more than one psychologist or therapy service attending to her needs. This has been well received at St Pat’s.
Teacher Amber Wilkinson and learning support teachers Mary Jane Millard and Bettina O’Heir are more than happy to modify the curriculum so that Georgia’s needs are met and she’s essentially following the same program as the other students in Year 5. I now feel we have good foundations for a brighter future. Disability or not, a child’s happiness is priceless.
If we don’t believe in our children, believe that they can achieve, how will they rise up?