Love for son led to award

SARAH ARGYLE
Last updated 05:00 16/01/2013
Wendy Duff
Sarah Argyle
RISING UP: Wendy Duff was recognised in the New Year honours list as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to autism in New Zealand.

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Elliott, 18, was adopted by Wendy and Mark Duff when he was 7 hours old.

Mrs Duff says the couple were "absolutely besotted".

"We got him home and he was going through the normal stages of growing.

"He was reaching milestones, he was doing pat-a-cake pat-a-cake, eating baby food and seemed to be following all the charts properly.

But something switched in Elliott when he was 16 months old.

"Suddenly we had a child who wouldn't eat, wouldn't sleep, lost eye contact and was an empty shell.

"A paediatrician suggested Elliot might have autism. On Elliot's second birthday we flew to Brisbane to Dr Tony Attwood," she says.

"We returned to New Zealand with a whole new life ahead of us."

Finding out something was wrong with their son was "painful".

"Adopting Elliott was a time of huge joy. We were going to do everything we could to help him."

After the diagnosis Mrs Duff went to the Auckland branch of Autism New Zealand to learn everything she could about the disability.

She was spurred to make a change in New Zealand not only for her son but also for other children like Elliott.

"I promptly joined the committee. In 2000 I joined the national board of Autism New Zealand and was president for seven years."

Mrs Duff has fought hard to change the maximum age of respite care in New Zealand from 17 to 21.

She also set up a specialist classroom for autistic children at the Phoenix Centre at Pakuranga's Riverhills School.

"It was fully fenced and classrooms were made sensory-suitable with lowered roofs, no fluorescent lights and carpet on the floor.

"But I soon began to realise Elliott needed more help," she says.

"I put off looking at special schools because I had this vision in my head that children at special schools sat and rocked in the corner."

Mrs Duff visited Sommerville Special School and realised how passionate the teachers were.

At age 16 Elliott went into "crisis". He became violent and began to lash out at those around him.

"What frustrated me the most was I was the president of Autism New Zealand and I couldn't get the answers, I couldn't find the right people to help."

Mrs Duff says Elliott is becoming more challenging with age.

"If he has a meltdown he tends to go for me. He knows he's bigger than me, stronger than me and he knows he scares me.

"There have been moments when I've thought ‘this is too hard'."

In 1999 Mrs Duff lost her father to liver cancer. The following year she was diagnosed with it herself. Three years later she had a successful liver transplant.

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Mr Duff recently said to his wife: "When is something good going to happen to us?"

Wendy Duff was recognised in the New Year honours list as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to people with autism.

"This award is my reward."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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