What is the definition of unconditional love? One definition I found was: “It is the caring and loving of another person and not thinking of what is in it for you or what you get out of it.”
I recently wrote a book about my daughter’s life journey with autism, The Autistic Author and Animator, and it contains the essence of unconditional love for our autistic daughter – not only from my family and me, but from a group of people who I call my Dream Team. This includes a play therapist, speech and language pathologist, psychiatrist, respite care workers, daycare personnel, community outreach programs, teachers, and friends who have accepted Jenny for Jenny. Last, but certainly not least, the silent hero and Jenny’s best friend who always loved her unconditionally: her dog, Mr. Sparkles.
Jenny was diagnosed at three years old with low-functioning autism. I was totally in the dark when I was told this, as I had never heard the word autism before. However, without knowing it, I had already been introduced to it through Jenny’s behavior with her not talking and just grunting, pushing me towards what she wanted, spinning herself in circles, demonstrating her extreme sensitivity to all five senses, and exhibiting pickiness about foods. She had terrible fits when her routine was changed, and she would bite, hit, or scratch herself. I had to put her in a lukewarm baths to settle her down and ease her into calmness. There was no eye contact, and she preferred to be in a world of her own. Jenny would love to line things up, and if you tried to join in or touch one or change a line up, the fit was on. She didn’t like to share or play with others.
I knew I needed to get to the bottom of this for Jenny’s sake. We would get horrible looks and comments from people when we were out in public about Jenny’s behavior. At first, I was always apologizing and explaining, “She is not a bad girl; she doesn’t understand or mean to be like this.” It broke my heart for Jenny, because I wanted to protect her.
Wanting to get answers, I took Jenny to our general practitioner. When I told him that I felt something was very wrong and she needed to see a specialist, he looked at me as if I was a neurotic, over-protective mother. I explained we had tried to do a hearing test and it couldn’t be completed as she had fits. He wouldn’t send me to a specialist, but sent us for another hearing test, creating the same outcome. I went back to his office and demanded for Jenny to see a pediatrician. I was never an assertive person, however, going through the process of autism, I became one and I got the appointment. Within fifteen minutes into the pediatrician appointment, she said Jenny had autism and needed an assessment with a specialist.
The pediatrician then informed me an appointment had been booked, but had to wait over a year. I said, “OMG, over a year, Jenny’s needs help right now!” She reassured me that we would have contact with appropriate care services and support. Hence, the Dream Team I mentioned earlier. I was very fortunate to have caring, hardworking individuals who went the extra mile for Jenny. They became our second family. I hear of families who say their child has slipped through the cracks, with no one listening to concerns or having a game plan for their child. However, from the day I was told about Jenny’s autism, I never looked back, always stayed positive, and made sure that she was getting every possible support and program out there and carried it on at home. Our Dream Team was always there for us before and after the specialist assessment; they were our Guardian Angels.
So, when Jenny was nearly five years old, we finally got in with the specialist. Autism was the outcome; however, she was labeled as mildly mentally challenged. We all knew it was autism, though. We were told by the specialist, “Jenny is never going to talk well, she is never going to be up where her peers are, she will never get married or work in a bank.” Well, I started to tune her out and I thanked her for her time at the end of our appointment. I walked out of the office, saying, “That’s not going to happen.”
Since Jenny was a little girl, she loved to draw and would watch animation movies over and over again. I seriously thought her hands would drop off as she was constantly drawing, writing stories, and making flip pages. In the 10th grade, I surprised Jenny as I made an appointment with an Animation Studio in Vancouver, BC to go on a tour. We lived about five hours away in Vernon. In the middle of the tour, Jenny stopped in the hallway and said, “I just want to stay here and animate.” She loved everything about it, and Justin, who did the tour, saw this and said we should enroll her into an Animation School when she graduated high school. I remember on our drive home, Jenny said to me that she didn’t know if she would graduate and didn’t think they would accept her into Animation School. I stopped the car and looked at her and said, “Jenny, you will pass 12th grade, you will get into Vancouver Film School, I believe in you, I am confident in you, trust in me Jenny. “Well, when we got home, I phoned Vancouver Film School, made an appointment with admissions, and we took off to Vancouver again. The admissions counselor was very taken by Jenny and encouraged her to apply. I tip my hat off to Jenny as she worked extremely hard to pass her classes, and in between all of this, there was a lot she had to send for the application. Jenny never wavered; she trooped through the trenches, climbed up the slippery mountain slopes, finally made her way up to the peak, and then jumped onto the clouds.
A friend of Jenny’s in high school once told me that what she admired the most about Jenny was her work ethic. Even though things were hard and would require her to put forth extra effort, she would do them and do an outstanding job. These were the same sentiments from all of her teachers. However, she did go through a lot of bullying, and even though she knew she had to face this, she walked into that school every day because she knew what she wanted to do with her life. She also started writing a book from grades 10 to 12, and her writing teacher and fellow classmates said that she had to get this book published. Again, Jenny said to me, “No one is going to want to publish my book.” I said to her, “I believe in you, now believe in yourself, your book will get published, trust in me.”
Jenny graduated high school in 2011 with honors and received scholarships. She also found out before graduating that she was accepted into Vancouver Film School. Funny story with that – she told me to open up the school letter when it came, whether she was home or not. Well, it came on a day when she wasn’t home. When I opened it and saw she was accepted, I began screaming and I bet the neighbors must have thought I was in trouble. I drove to the store, got “Congrats” helium balloons and a card, and kept the acceptance letter with me. Off I went to the school, asking the receptionists if I could go to Jenny’s room. They were so happy for Jenny and gladly said, “Go for it.” She was in video class and the room was dark, so I knocked a couple of times and then went in and ask the teacher if I could just talk a minute with Jenny. Wouldn’t you know it, there she was at the front of the class. I ran up to her and was jumping up and down and letting her know she was accepted to Vancouver Film School for Animation. She looked stunned and said, “What are you doing here, Mum?” Her friend explained she had been accepted to Animation School. As I ran out, Jenny later told me she said, “What just happened, did my Mum just tell me I was accepted to Animation School?” Apparently, I was like a flash coming into the room and a flash going out. We laugh about this still today.
In between 2D Animation and 3D Animation, I got in contact with a publisher who wanted to take on Jenny with her novel and myself with my book about Jenny’s life journey with autism.
In July, 2011, we moved to Vancouver, as Jenny’s classes started in August. We had no family or friends there, and she could not do it on her own. Jenny deserved this opportunity. But most importantly, when you are a parent and have watched firsthand as your child battles the odds, selling the house and moving becomes no big deal. And this is what I did – I gave her the world to follow her dreams and achieve them. I couldn’t be more happy or proud of her.
I can happily say that Jenny just turned 23 years old, is a professional 2D and 3D Animator, and is a graduate of Vancouver Film School. She is also a bestselling author of her Fantasy Fiction novel, Dysnomia – Outcasts on a Distant Moon. It is the first of a trilogy and she does her own illustrations in it. It was a best seller in pre-order sales — our publisher was blown away by this, as that is not the norm. Her book is getting quite the following and she is in the middle of writing the sequel. She also did animation and illustrations for a film for Super Channel this year. Jenny and I are both official spokespersons for ANCA/Naturally Autistic and have been involved with their World of Autism Festivals since last year.
And there it is: the unconditional love of a Mother and also the inspiration that Jenny is – not only to me, but to every person who has met and worked with her. To me, autism is not a death sentence, so to speak, but a richly fulfilling life sentence. Autism rocks, autism rules, and autism connects.
This article was featured in Issue 52 – Celebrating the Voices of Autism