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'I am a mother of two autistic teenage girls. Here's what I want you to know.'

Most women don’t look like the mums sitting on the front of Mother’s Day cards. Today, Mamamia celebrates all kinds of mums. For more stories about the reality of motherhood, check out Mamamia’s Mother’s Day hub page. 

Mellissa is a busy working mum of two teenage girls, Amelia, 15, and Matilda, 13. While the girls are both autistic, Mellissa says they couldn't be more different. She spoke to Mamamia to share her experience as a parent for World Autism Awareness Day on April 2, 2022.

Mellissa’s eldest daughter, Amelia, was initially diagnosed as autistic when she was 10 years old. Mellissa and her husband Duane always thought she was different as she struggled with certain milestones.

"From a young age, Amelia had issues with walking and was very emotional," Melissa told Mamamia.

"She was sensitive to noise and got overwhelmed easily. She struggled with school but she wasn’t shy, rather she was a real chatterbox. We often said that the problem wasn’t getting Amelia to speak, but getting her to stop!"

Watch: Kathy Lette on parenting autistic children. Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia.

At school, Amelia was unhelpfully labelled as a 'difficult kid' and as Mellissa and Duane spent so much time seeing the teacher, they soon became known as 'difficult parents' too.

"Mainstream school is not geared for autistic kids which is why they are called 'difficult', 'disruptive', or in Amelia’s case, 'manipulative'. The trouble was, we just didn’t know how to help her because she didn’t conform. But once we were told that Amelia was autistic, it all made sense. 

"I appreciate some people don’t like labels, but we found that with the label of autism, Amelia understood she was different and that was okay. It also brought about understanding and funding from NDIS that allowed us to better support and encourage Amelia’s needs and interests."

Something else that really helped Mellissa and Amelia in those early days was connecting with the Yellow Ladybugs, a non-government organisation that celebrates all autistic individuals. It was started by Katie Koullas, a mum of an autistic girl who wanted to throw a party for all the autistic girls who regularly missed out on birthday invites at school. 

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"Yellow Ladybugs organise regular social activities such as picnics and art classes and it was so welcoming. Amelia particularly loved the events with animals and horses and her love for horses continues all these years later. 

"I got to meet and share stories with other mums of autistic girls. We would regularly catch up to have dinner and swap tips for therapists, dental clinics, or lately, driving schools, that were good for autistic kids. Finding this community was important for the whole family."

Listen: The Quicky host Claire Murphy talks to guests about living with autism as an adult. Post continues below.

 

While Amelia was diagnosed at 10 years old, Matilda’s diagnosis of autism only came about recently, after she turned 13 years old.

"At primary school, Matilda was highly organised and got on well academically. She was interested in dance and music and had plenty of friends. Her challenges related to food, which started from the moment we introduced her to solids as an infant. 

"She had sensory issues eating certain types of food and she wouldn’t recognise hunger or thirst, so we had to give her protein shakes from the hospital to help her gain weight."

The chaos and increased pressure of starting at a big high school coupled with the pandemic increased Matilda’s anxiety and disordered eating. After sessions with her paediatrician, a psychologist, and observations with an occupational therapist, Matilda was told that she too was autistic.

"At first it was confusing because how could it be that they are both autistic when they are so different? But we’ve learnt a lot about the genetic link in families and it has been helpful for Matilda to know that like Amelia, her brain works differently, and it is not a bad thing."

Mellissa says that while they have made mistakes along the way as parents, she knows they are trying their best. But other people are not always so helpful.

"It's difficult to be a mum of an autistic kid as there is a lot of judgement where instead there should be understanding and extra help. There is no handbook but I can’t feel guilty, I love my girls and Duane and I do the best we can.

"Something people say to me all the time is that my girls 'don’t look autistic' as if that is a compliment. It isn’t. 

"While I know the intention is not usually malicious, it shows a misunderstanding, and it is not helpful. Autistic kids are all different and many people still think a typical autistic child is male, has limited speech and tics; like in the movie Rain Man. 

"What is helpful is when people just listen and are supportive. If people want to understand, maybe just ask to take my girls out for a coffee and have a chat with them."

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As for other families with recently diagnosed autistic kids, Mellissa says it is important to find your community and get the support you need. 

"I read comments by mums of young autistic girls on Facebook and I remember what it was like back at the start of our journey. I used to feel completely overwhelmed about basic activities. I couldn’t just take my girls to the supermarket; everything had to be planned, and it was hard going and isolating.

"I learnt over the years that you can’t fit a round peg in a square hole - you either damage the peg, or the hole. This is what trying to fit an autistic person into mainstream life is like.

"Once we connected with a good paediatrician, therapists, made friends and found the support we needed, everything got much better.

"And now my girls see successful autistic women like comedian Hannah Gadsby and actor Chloe Hayden helping to smash stereotypes and it makes me feel very hopeful for the future."

Did you know we have a whole family focussed community you can join on Facebook for more discussions like this? Join the Mamamia Parents Facebook group and follow Mamamia  Parents on Instagram and tell us what #parentinglookslike for you!

Feature Image: Supplied.

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