Every parent wants the best for their child. They want them to have a bright education, happy childhood, make lots of friends and continue to go onto further study and get a good job or even a career.
When you have a child with a disability, you still want all of the above, but you have to face reality and come to the realisation that these things may not be possible for your child.
When Michael was born nine weeks premature, doctors continued to assess him for delays and to ensure he was thriving. The first born child in his family, there were no siblings for his parents to compare him with. When he was just 18 months old his mother Kirsten found a checklist for autism in toddlers, the traits sounded all too familiar.
Although still undiagnosed, as a premature baby, Michael attended speech therapy and occupational therapy as well as regularly seeing a paediatrician.
“Michael didn’t speak much at first, and unlike most children his first word was eight,” tells Mum Kirsten. “He didn’t play with other kids, he wasn’t like other kids, he had obsessions with certain objects like fans, traffic lights and signs.”
At the age of three his paediatrician confirmed that Michael had Autism. He was also diagnosed with Motor Dyspraxia and was allergic to cows’ milk which required the use of an EpiPen for treatment.
“One day we took Michael to the zoo to see all of the animals,” tells Kirsten. “When we came home Michael recounted the number and colour of the sprinklers and said nothing about the animals.”
“Another time, at kindergarten, they went to the next room to see the baby chickens, and all Michael could talk about was the ceiling fans that were in the room.”
Prior to starting primary school Michael went to a school readiness program at Monash University. When Michael started primary school they didn’t have funding for a teaching aide in the first year, as a result Michael spent a lot of his time under the table because he couldn’t deal with it all, and became frustrated when the time table changed.
He managed to obtain funding in his second year which continued to the end of primary school. Outside of school he continued with years of speech therapy, physio and OT.
Michael had always been brilliant with maths to the point of challenging himself in prep by completing all his maths work in roman numerals. In grade 3 he worked using the base 8 number system, and in year 8 he completed a maths test in Japanese.
He also liked to correct spelling, particularly the placement of an apostrophe, to the point where he would carry a pen with him so he could make changes to posters and notices placed around school (usually student made).
“We had a lot of struggles with Michael, especially in regards to food, or more accurately the refusal of! He couldn’t cope with mixed textures, like soup with vegetables, stews and casseroles or anything thick and ‘gloopy’ like sauce, gravy, yoghurt and custard,” continues Kirsten.
“Going to Southland was a massive effort because Michael had to list all of the shops we were going to before we left home and could not change them once we arrived.”
“When he became obsessed with the Melways he would work out which way to go and become frustrated if you went the ‘wrong’ way. He also loved to read the manuals when we purchased a new car or a new appliance. This has been a great help as we could always rely on Michael to provide us with any information we needed.”
Michael received a scholarship for secondary school which the school offered him based on his mathematical achievements without knowing he was autistic. Fortunately the school was very supportive and helped him every step of the way.
“One of the comments we had from the school as he was preparing to move to another campus was, “Oh, he’s more autistic than we thought!” tells Kirsten. “What does a mother even say to that?!”
Things at school went quite smoothly. Michael was always one to obey the rules in order to make the teachers happy. “We had a dream run with school really, the schools and the teachers were always supportive, even to the point where the secondary school employed Michael’s grade six teacher’s aide to work with Michael in the first term of year 7 to assist with his transition.”
Michael went on to complete his VCE and received a high ATAR score, however his English scores were too low and they let him down. It was suggested that he do a pathways course at Swinburne University, which is a bit like a diploma course providing Michael with the support and structure he needed for his first year.
He was then able to move to the IT degree for his second, third and forth year. Along the way he failed one of his subjects, due to a panic attack at the beginning of the semester, however he repeated the same subject two years later and received a distinction.
“Michael received support from Swinburne all the way through. They were great. They had an accessibility program and there was a person who was involved in the pathways program who Michael could go and rant to whenever he needed to.”
“They allowed him to take his exams in a room by himself, and provided him with additional breaks if he needed to get up and pace around. Of course he struggled with group work, but he got through and did really well to the point of receiving top marks in a couple of his subjects.”
After graduating from University Michael was accepted into a Graduate Program with a bank. This was no mean feat, with online tests, phone interviews, a group interview based around a scenario and finally an interview proper.
Michael recently attended a welcome function for all of the graduates and will start his 18 month program which will provide him with three rotations, all within IT, in February 2019.
It’s been a long journey for Michael and his family, and by no means has it been smooth sailing. It’s been hard work and dedication from his parents who have both had to work around Michael to ensure he was fully supported along the way.
Now, at the age of 22, Michael is off into the wide world with the hope of gaining an on-going employment after he completes his Graduate Program. It’s difficult for his Mum, Kirsten, to let go. “I feel like I want to call his employer and tell them all about Michael and his needs, but I can’t!”
It’s without doubt that Michael will continue to struggle, however he has come a long way since his first word and all the time he spent under the table in prep. He really has gone from eight to great!