• John McGary, Woodford Sun Editor

Raising “neurodiverse” child a challenge and a joy

MELISSA WATTS and her sister, Angela Blackburn (not shown here) are raising Emma, 5, who is Melissa’s granddaughter. One of the reasons Melissa wanted to talk about Emma – who calls her “Gimme” – is to spread awareness of the challenges faced by autistic children and their caregivers. (Photo by Angela Blackburn)

April is National Autism Awareness Month.

Melissa Watts says her granddaughter Emma was born six weeks

prematurely, with a broken collarbone, shoulder, flat head syndrome,

jaundice and hypoglycemia.

By the time Emma was a few months old, she’d already undergone multiple

therapy sessions and had bonded with Melissa. Emma’s mother, who doesn’t

drive, had a “hard, hard time,” so Melissa, a health care professional,

and her sister, Angela Blackburn, decided to raise her themselves.

“It was best that Emma stay with me,” Melissa says. “My daughter did not

want to leave her husband and come back with me.” Emma sees her mother

regularly, she says, and adores Angela.

When Emma was 3, she was diagnosed with autism – or “neurodiversity,” as

Melissa usually calls it, though they suspected the diagnosis before then.

“She sees, experiences the world in a different way than neurotypical

people, which would be normal folks,” Melissa says. “It’s the way she

thinks. I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry she’s autistic.’ I’m like,

‘That’s a great thing, actually, because she’s got like a superhero

brain.’ Everything is amplified and magnified, like, to nth degree. I

say, ‘Well, you can’t tell it by the way we dress her.’”

Melissa laughs, then elaborates.

“It’s a disability, clinically, but it’s actually a superb ability. They

sense things, they see vividly, they feel vividly, they hear very

vividly, so the normal sounds here (the interview was conducted on the

patio of Ricardo’s) would be too much. It’s amplified, it’s too much,”

she says.

Melissa says Emma, who is a preschooler at Southside Elementary, was

diagnosed as Level 2 on the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) scale.

Sometimes, clothing hurts her skin, particularly tags, and she and

Angela, who acts as Emma’s mother, use a special brush on her skin for

stimulation. (Emma calls Melissa “Gimme” – as in, she says

half-jokingly, “Gimme everything I want.”)

“She can be one way one day, she can feel things to the nth degree, and

on other days, she can be totally shut down (and have) selective

mutism,” she says.

Raising any child can be difficult, but children with autism, even those

with Emma’s abilities, pose special challenges.

“Some days we do live in crisis,” Melissa says.

A trip to the grocery can be troublesome, because Emma may become

overwhelmed by the noises and lights and people – and because some

observers have the wrong impression, Melissa says.

“To the average person, they would think she is throwing a tantrum, but

that’s not what it is,” she says. “ … And we get looked on like, ‘Oh, if

I was a parent, I would discipline my child greatly.’ But you know,

that’s not what it is at all. So people don’t understand, because

there’s not an awareness. It looks like a child who didn’t get their way

or something to that effect, and that’s not the case at all – it’s just

too much at that moment.”

Doorbells and barking dogs hurt Emma’s ears – but other sounds bring her

great joy.

“If I take her to a concert, she’ll stand by the speakers and she goes

to another world. Her whole facial expression changes, music is her

thing. Art, she loves art. She loves pictures,” Melissa says.

Sunsets and flowers are favorites of Emma’s and she has her own phone to

take photos of them. Inspired by Joe James, a photographer with autism,

she’s already lobbying Gimme and Mom (Angela) for her own camera.

Asked what Emma knows of herself, Melissa replies, “She knows that she

learns differently and that’s all it is. … And she can learn quicker and

more in-depth than the average neurotypical folks. She always says, ‘I

have the superhero brain!’ That’s what we call it, so she can understand

it, at 5. And she understands that some stimuli is too much, and this is

why. ‘You’re autistic and that’s why you have sensory processing issues.’”

Emma has a younger brother diagnosed as Level 3 on the ASD scale who’s

being raised by his birth mother. Melissa says the nonverbal boy almost

certainly won’t ever be able to live on his own, but Emma just might.

“We are not sure at this point. There are several people who are

successful, like Joe James – he’s married and he has children. And there

are people who are not ever able to …” she says.

If Emma is unable to live without them, Melissa and Angela will continue

to do what they’re doing now – helping her manage her condition without

trying to change her and allowing her to be herself – a beautiful girl

with a superhero brain who sometimes feels too much.

“I would hope with good education, grace and mercy from folks who

understand, and just allowing her to experience the world to the level

that she can experience, I think she’ll be a very successful person –

she’ll just think and act differently than most,” Melissa says.

She hopes strangers who see children “behaving badly” in public to think

and act differently themselves – to consider that the boy or girl

yelling and thrashing about may, for a time, have little or no control

over their actions. What those children and their caregivers need is not

a frown or muttered comment, but as much understanding as possible, she


“So allow us grace and mercy,” Melissa says. “If you see we’re trying to

be on the floor and calm our child, move our buggy out of the way so

nobody gets hurt ... and if you see a child in a store touching

everything … it may be a child who is autistic. …”

Melissa, who has lupus, is also neurodiverse. She says for her and

Angela, raising Emma is challenging – and wonderful.

“It’s difficult, but it’s also joyous to get to experience the world

through her eyes,” she says. “Me and my sister, we dedicate our life to

Emma. We’re both older, we’ve lived our lives, and she needs a good

opportunity and a good chance – the best chance she can get.”

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