This month we have a different kind of Little Heroes story – and we think you’ll agree it’s awesome. If you take one message from these little heroes, let it be that:
DIFFERENT IS OK – AND IT CAN BE AWESOME!
Alyssa Bolger, 11, and her brother Lachlan, 10, both have autism. Alyssa also has epilepsy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), while Lachlan has a diagnosed anxiety disorder.
Together with their parents Rhona and Clay, they travel WA to speak to schools about life on the autism spectrum. It is Alyssa’s dream for all kids to grow up in a respectful and accepting society, and she wants everyone to know:
“Autistic kids rock!”
Alyssa’s Autism Acceptance (AAA) Project started as an idea around the family breakfast table after Alyssa’s time as the 2015 Little Telethon Star for the Channel 7 Perth Telethon. The family had received a message via the Autism Research Team at the Telethon Kids Institute, from another little girl with autism, who didn’t realize that there were other girls out there like her. Alyssa was upset by the thought of her feeling so isolated, and she was determined to educate the community.
They get so many emails from kids saying:
“Can Alyssa please be my friend? I don’t have any friends at school.”
Children with autism can be so misunderstood. So the AAA Project is about promoting understanding and acceptance. As Rhona says,
“These kids shouldn’t have to spend their lives in a constant struggle to fit in.”
And they don’t have to, if others learn to adjust how they communicate.
She explains to us a little about the autistic brain, and how people with autism have heightened senses. This makes for a beautiful experience of the world, very different to anyone else. But people on the autism spectrum do not have the “tune out” factor that non-autistic people have, which allows them to filter out the sensory information that they don’t need to focus on.
This causes sensory overload, and they need to develop ways to cope with it. Lachlan often talks to himself, and Alyssa will sing. Sometimes, they just need to shut down. The important thing for us is to accept that these behaviours have a purpose, and not to label them as weird or negative behaviours that need to be changed.
“Some people think the kids are rude when they don’t respond. But they’re in shutdown mode; it’s how they cope. People need to change their expectations, and not make autistic children feel bad about who they are and how they respond to the world. “
As well as educating school groups, Alyssa has spoken to Rotary groups and Occupational Therapy students at Curtin University. She and Lachlan spend hours every day doing therapy, so she could speak to the OT students about how important it is that therapy sessions are respectful and fun.
This kind of public speaking would be daunting for any 11 year old (and many adults!), let alone someone with autism. She still gets incredibly nervous before her talks but when her parents remind her she can stop presenting talks at any time, she refuses.
“The kids need me. I don’t want to let them down.”
Alyssa and Lachlan’s message is that they are not broken – indeed their superpower is the strength they get from their autism. But they also want people to know that no two autistic people are the same.
“If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.”
Alyssa is amazingly observant, spotting things in people and the environment that no one else sees. She is insightful beyond her years, and asks endless questions – she’s on an eternal quest for knowledge!
She loves Lego, the colour pink, and their dog Zappa. Her biggest dream is to be an early childhood teacher like her mum. And to make sure everyone knows that autistic kids rock!
Lachlan is an incredible independent learner, and has taught himself how to play the drums, piano, and to shoot and edit his own movies. He is currently the technical supervisor for the school talks, running the PowerPoint presentations and helping to set up and pack up the equipment.
He never stops smiling, and always wants to make sure everyone is laughing and having a good time. He can be a bit of a prankster! He likes to be in charge, and his dream is to be a DJ, a camera-man… or to join the band Daft Punk! Lachlan’s favourite colour is yellow, and of course he loves Zappa too.
The biggest struggle for the family has been getting access to respectful, evidence-based services. They get great support from the Autism Association of WA, Autism West, Sensory Connections plus a team of therapists and specialists. But there’s a lot of red tape, especially for access to education, and most schools aren’t adequately funded to meet the needs of autistic children.
Rhona and Clay’s chief concern is that their children are supported to become independent adults. Unfortunately they don’t currently see the services in place that will help them function and participate in society.
But this family is determined to make big changes, and they draw strength from each other. Rhona and Clay do everything together, including attending all of the kids’ appointments. It’s very clear that the Bolgers work as a team, and have a lot of fun together! The “Team Bolgies” motto is:
“There are no problems, there are only solutions.”
There is one other thing you can do.
At each of her talks, Alyssa asks the audience to make a pinkie promise, and today we are going to ask you to do the same. All you have to do is hold up your pinkie and say:
I WILL ACCEPT AND RESPECT
THE DIFFERENCES OF OTHERS.
You can purchase prints of Alyssa and Lachaln’s artwork here.Share