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Autism changed my life

Having a child with autism was the catalyst for Tanya Catterell to step off the corporate ladder and into a fulfilling career.

Autism changed my life

I’ve got a full time career, best career you could ever have, because of my daughter Maya’s autism diagnosis.

Who knew that I wanted to do this? If it hadn’t been for her, I would have been climbing that corporate ladder, thinking I was really happy but because of her, I get to do the best job ever. I don’t like to brag about having the best job ever, but I do.

In my role as an educator for Autism New Zealand I get to play with children and have that joy. You know when you walk into a room and they cry, ‘she’s here, she’s here!’. You get the satisfaction of seeing parents with no confidence transform by the end of the course and say ‘I can’t wait to get home and play with my child’, or ‘I can’t wait to try that out that new strategy,’ or those wonderful light bulb moments when somebody gets it, ‘oh, that’s why they behave like that,’ it’s this beautiful moment when they realise they’re not naughty, they’re just really having a tough time today.

I get to travel around the country and we meet wonderful teachers, and help spread the word, and selfishly, the more people who know about autism, it’s going to make my daughter’s life easier. It’s not just going to be her against the world. It’ll be her with people who might just have a better understanding.

I used to lie awake and wonder what was going to happen to Maya in the future. And I have another teenage daughter, Eden, and she’s going to have her own challenges. You can’t know what’s going to happen in 10 years, you’ve only got now.

It was always important for me, when this all happened, that when Maya looked back on her childhood she’d go, ‘wow that was a blast, that was really fun’.

Through Maya I’ve also become a lot more accepting of people and their differences. I felt quite sheltered really, my life was ticking along absolutely perfectly, seemingly, then you realise, hang on, this is what’s really important. And you know how they say people with autism are hard to connect with, but when you do, there’s nothing more pure, I think.

Some adjectives that are thrown around for people with autism are that they lack empathy, or they’re not into friendships or relationships, but when you’ve got that relationship, and it doesn’t matter how much time passes they know me and you know they’re being truthful when they come up and say, ‘I’ve missed you’.

Then there are the moments when Maya has gone out on a limb at the supermarket. She’ll touch a man’s beer belly and say, ‘Is there a baby coming in the spring time?’ And you have those moments where, ‘hmm, sorry about that!’
Don’t ask Maya ‘do I look fat in this?’

As someone with autism put it, it’s like an android trying to talk to a Mac, we’ve got different operating systems so we need to learn to talk to each other. And then he said quickly, ‘I’m the mac, you’re the android’.

I think Maya’s autism has been great for Eden. I used to feel guilty that she didn’t have a sibling that was ‘normal’ but I think she’s far more accepting of people and she’s mature beyond her years. While Eden says having a sister with autism “has its moments” she’s very proud of Maya. We have found a new ‘normal’ as a family.

Working with Neil Stuart (Autism New Zealand education and training director) his gift was helping me reach acceptance. I no longer felt that urgency that I had to fix my daughter anymore. It was just like the weight of the world off my shoulders. Okay, well, she’s got autism.

I remember saying ‘please tell me she’s mild or not severe, or what’s she going to be like in 20 years, or how can I fix her?’ And I remember him saying, ‘she’s a beautiful example of a little girl with autism, she’s a lovely girl, and her name is Maya, she’s a little girl first and she’s not defined by autism’.

Maya was four (she’s 12 now) and it made sense to me, it was like, wow, I’m not fighting changing her any more. I can help her with autism. It helped finding a professional that saw the positive side of things, and never once said, ‘Maya won’t, Maya won’t, Maya won’t’. It was more, ‘hey, look at the small steps, really appreciate those small steps’, otherwise you’re looking at that long-term goal and thinking ‘oh, she still doesn’t have a friend’, and feeling that failure. The last thing I want to do for Maya is give her that sense that she’s not succeeding. We all need that self-esteem and people with autism more than the rest of us.

It was a big light bulb moment to find a professional (Stuart) who saw the positive in Maya, who actually enjoyed being with Maya and playing with Maya. I wanted to be able to do what he could do and that’s how I got into this job.

I said ‘I want to make other parents feel like you’ve just made me feel, like it’s not the end of the world after all’.

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