Fighting to free Rosanna from a life sentence of autism

Rosanna and Gill

When Gill and Nick Gillard of Bushy Hill Drive, Guildford, discovered that their first child, Rosanna was autistic they were devastated. But Gill was determined to improve her daughter's prospects.
This is her inspiring story.

Rosanna is our first child. Until the age of two years we were totally unaware that anything was wrong with her development. It came as a total shock to us, following the birth of our second child Aprille, to find out she was autistic. In fact it took a long time to get this medical diagnosis, but we did realise very quickly that autism was the problem.

I remember clearly my first reaction of shock and grief as I took in the seriousness of what autism means. Everything I read seemed to be about doom and gloom and a life-long sentence for Rosanna of not being able to communicate or make friends. I found this devastating. My next reaction was what can I do? How can I make her better? I felt sure that there must be something which would help, but nobody seemd to be able to tell me.

I started working very hard with Rosanna, trying to get her to talk, using ideas from speech therapy books. At this point Rosanna was not using language and nothing seemed to make any difference.

After nine months, lots of reading, tears and hard work, I stumbled on a book at the library called The Sound of a Miracle by Annabel Stehli. This was the first positive story I read about a family's dealing with autism. This in tum led to more books and eventually to a book which gave me real hope called Let Me Hear Your Voice by Catherine Maurice. It is the story of a family whose two children "recovered" from autism. Nobody had ever indicated that autistic children might be able to function normally, and I decided to investigate.

My search led to me finding out about the work of Ivor Lovaas,a Norwegian psychologist who has worked with autistic children since the 1960's. He had undertaken an experiment where 47% of chiIdren who had completed his therapy, had gone on to pass through the normal schooling independently and went on to lead normal lives.

The children started the programme aged 3-4 years when the brain is said to be more malleable. Follow-up studies are being carried out on these children, who are now in their twenties and thirties, and there is no sign of autism.

The Lovaas programme is very intense and involves 40 hours of one-to-one behaviour modification every week. Everything taught is broken down into very small steps and rewarded heavily. It is mainly language based but also includes academic, independent and social skills. The aim is to to integrate the child into a normal school when possible. We embarked on the programme in September 1995 At this point I had worked with Rosanna for almost a year with very little progress and had a strong gut feeling that she was not a child that was going to naturally progress in time.

A Norwegian consultant came to our home to train us and a team of psychology students in the method of the Lovaas programme. The results were amazing. Within three weeks Rosanna started to verbally imitate words and within 5 months she could talk in sentences. We worked with her for six hours a day six days a week to achieve this. Rosanna has made steady consistent progress and since September has been half a day in mainstream nursery and half a day continuing to work at home. She has not recovered from autism yet and I know we still have a lot of work to do with her but we have found a very effective tool in giving her the ability to speak, socialise and become independent.

In January of this year we had a tribunal hearing with Surrey Local Education Authority to fund us for the running of the programme. We won the case, which has been a tremendous relief for us, as the programme has been expensive and we have had to raise funds to do it. We hope that the tribunal win will enable other people to run similar programmes or more intensely educational provision to be made available for pre-school children with autism in Surrey.

Research is currently being undertaken in Norway with children between four and seven years old with very positive results. I feel that Lovaas can be applied to any child.

The Lovaas training programme is becoming more and more popular in Britain, There is now a charity called PEACH (Parents for the Early intervention of Autism in Children) which gives advice and support to people running their own programmes. In September Dr Lovaas is coming to Britain for a conference in London on early intervention in autism. For more information contact PEACH, P0 Box 10836 London SW13 9ZN.

This article first appeared in the Surrey Advertiser Newspaper on 1st August 1997.

© Surrey Advertiser 1997. Used by permission.

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