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Raising an Autistic Child

By Gail Simpkins 4 min read

Gail Simpkins’ son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when he was two. She looks back on her journey and the changes he has undergone over the years.

I remember the day Lachlan was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. He was just two years old. The doctor had tears in her eyes as she gave me the diagnosis, but it explained some of the curious moments Lachlan and I shared, one of which was the main reason I sought an assessment: Lachlan would often line up toys from the front of the house to the back of it. It was cute, funny and quirky and I knew it made sense to Lachlan even if it didn’t to me.

At the time of diagnosis, Lachlan had never slept well and was an extremely fussy eater. He spoke a few words but not nearly as many as I remembered his sister saying at the same age. But he could spell words out using foam letters and would often spell his own or our names with them. He did puzzles and appeared to be very good at doing them. He even did them upside down! Other than that, most of my other parenting experiences with Lachlan were similar to that of my daughter, who does not have a disability. He was definitely just as much fun as any other child I had known.

After receiving the diagnosis and being upset for six weeks, I knew I needed to re-examine my thoughts and perspective. I had been distraught not knowing what having autism would mean to Lachlan. What would he have to miss out on? What could he do? What couldn’t he do? What sort of school would he go to? Would he be able to have friends, a relationship when he was older, a job?

No-one could tell me the answers to these questions.

There were so many unknowns for his future, but one thing I could control was my own perspective. Lachlan was still the same child, only now, there was a label for some of his actions. He was no less happy than before, and he deserved and needed me to still be happy.

As time went on, I noticed Lachlan just did some things a little differently, such as playing computer games in many different languages. He also has an excellent memory and can direct you to his favourite places all around Sydney, no GPS needed. He has incredibly detailed knowledge of the books and DVDs in our local libraries, as well as the DVDs in all the local stores. When he was a toddler, he remembered all the flags of different countries.

I first noticed people staring at us when we were out in public when Lachlan was a toddler. Perhaps it was because of Lachlan’s lively manner or vocalisations, but over time, I have learned to keep my focus on him, so much so that I now barely notice if we are being stared at. All parents have awkward situations with their children and when in public places, I find it most helpful when people give us the space and time we need to resolve the situation ourselves. As parents, we know our own children the best.

Haircuts have always been very uncomfortable for Lachlan and we were so blessed to have a friend come to our house for many years to cut Lachlan’s hair. Recently, this young woman became a first-time mum and we explained to Lachlan that he now needed to go to the barber. Thanks to her years of kindness and patience, Lachlan had the confidence to go to the barber shop and have his hair cut.

Lachlan with his sister, Sam.

When Lachlan was eight years old, he received an autism assistance dog named Itsal through Righteous Pups Australia, a not-for-profit organisation that raises and trains assistance dogs for children and adults with mobility issues, and to act as companion dogs for the elderly and socially isolated. It helped him immensely. Lachlan would become distressed in shopping centres and unfamiliar places but with his new best friend by his side, he was calm and confident to go wherever he wanted.

Lachlan was able to visit many places that he hadn’t been to before. For the first time ever, with Itsal, Lachlan was able to go to the movies, which is now one of his favourite activities. Itsal also helps keep Lachlan safe and is trained to track, should Lachlan become separated or lost. He sleeps on Lachlan’s bed each night and wakes us during the night if he is concerned about Lachlan or anything in the room. Itsal will wake us if he senses Lachlan is unwell during the night or if he finds the room too hot or cold. When Itsal first came to live with us, he even woke us if Lachlan’s pillow fell onto the floor during the night, but after a while, he realised we were not concerned about the pillow, so he does not wake us for that reason anymore.

As Lachlan does not worry about social norms, it has led us to some interesting adventures. We were at the park recently and Lachlan spotted three women sitting on a rug having a picnic. He approached them and sat down on their picnic rug. I tried to lead him away, but the women were very friendly and welcoming (even though they did not appear to speak very much English), and invited us to stay and eat with them. Lachlan was delighted; however, he did not accept their kind offer of some biscuits and nuts as he is still an extremely fussy eater. While focused on chatting over something with the ladies, I noticed Lachlan running off, so I thanked the ladies hurriedly and ran off after him!

Lachlan is 11 years old now and communicates through his iPad, which speaks out his requests and allows him to have two-way conversations with us. He also uses it at school. It is a godsend. He loves surfing and has participated in local surfing groups for the past four years. He enjoys school and is looking forward to high school next year.

We have been very blessed to have met so many helpful people along this journey and have had some amazing and very dedicated therapists and wonderful friends and family.

Lachlan has matured and changed, which has made him much more open to negotiation than when he was younger. We are super proud of him as he always tries his best at everything he does. Quite honestly, there is not very much we would change about him. He is usually happy, has a great sense of humour and cares about others.

The hardest part of having a child with a disability is seeing your child being excluded by others. It is also difficult to see others who have low expectations of him because there has never been any doubt in our minds that Lachlan can achieve his goals and dreams. We have seen him do so much already.


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Gail Simpkins works and studies in the area of social science, welfare and education in disabilities, and lives with her family in Sydney. She is the author of Praying for Strawberries, which documents Lachlan’s story with his assistance dog, Itsal.


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