Autistic children look like any other kids, they just see the world differently.
They also provide challenges to their parents who have to learn how to help their child deal with the world. Mathew Grocott talks to one Palmerston North family about their journey.
Anna Pedley was seven months pregnant with her second daughter, when she started to think there was something different about Ella, her first born.
"Being our first child you think this is what a child's like, you have nothing to compare it with.
"I couldn't take her to play groups or birthday parties, anywhere where there were a lot of kids. She'd act out. I thought she was being naughty, but she couldn't handle it."
Ella was about 2 1/2 years old at the time. Both Anna and her husband Tony Pedley recall thinking at the time Ella was a bit behind in her development.
She had a habit of picking items up, smelling them, and putting them down, past the age when kids tend to outgrow the stage.
Her grandfather Steve Kidby says the biggest sign for him was the way 2-year-old Ella would flap her hands in front of her.
So Anna rang her Plunket nurse, and after meeting with doctors she was told Ella had autism.
That was in February 2010. Anna says they did not know what the diagnosis meant at the time. For her it took until after Sophia was born for the reality to sink in.
"Everyone has dreams, two kids and the white picket fence, then you get told your daughter's autistic and it's wait, what does that mean now?
"When [the doctor] says she's autistic you think of [the Tom Cruise movie] Rain Man. He's rocking back and forth, I thought that's not Ella."
And that isn't Ella.
As Anna, Tony and Steve talk about her, Ella plays on the floor with Sophia. She turns 5 in August, her little sister is now 2 1/2.
Ella looks like any other girl her age. Blonde hair falls across her face as she stacks blocks, seeing how tall a tower she can make. Counting how many pieces she has used as she goes.
She jumps up on to the couch for cuddles with her family and is delighted when the family cat wanders into the room.
Anna and Tony say people have a lot of misconceptions about what being autistic means.
Anna: "That they're mute and they don't do anything."
Tony: "There are also a lot of misconceptions that they'll be incredibly smart when they're older."
Anna says Ella's form of autism is mild, and that the family has been lucky.
"There's always someone worse off."
The degree to which people with an autism spectrum disorder are affected varies, but they all have difficulties with social interactions, communication and imagination.
People with the disability can also have learning disabilities and all with autism have difficulty making sense of the world, they view things differently to how others do. They may also be hypersensitive to outside stimuli such as noise, light or smells.
It was Ella's autism that was making her uncomfortable at noisy parties and play groups. There was so much noise and activity, and she was aware of so much of it, that Ella was experiencing sensory overload.
"She couldn't handle groups of people in an enclosed space, noise. You had to leave," Anna says.
Things could be stressful at home, too. When baby Sophia cried, Anna says, Ella would react by banging her head against the wall.
Not long after Anna's diagnosis, the Pedleys took part in an EarlyBird course run by Autism NZ for parents of preschoolers.
There they started to learn about autism, how it affected Ella and how they could help her cope.
Anna: "It taught you how she perceives the world. It was such a huge help, I don't think we'd be where we are now without it."
It's been a long process, and a learning one. Patience was a big part of it, as was coping with what are known as meltdowns, times when things become overwhelming for Ella.
Steve says he knew nothing about autism when Ella was diagnosed and he had a lot of questions.
"How do we cope with this? I don't know autism, we don't know what an autistic child is like. I stepped back for a while, I didn't want to, but I didn't know how to handle her."
But he took part in courses and did his own research. "From there I watched [Anna and Tony] and was blown away with how they handle Ella. There's been some tough times."
The couple say a strong support network of friends and family members is also important.
A highlight for Steve and his wife came two weeks ago when Ella stayed the night at their house for the first time.
"That was a big step for us and Ella. She's a totally different girl."
Steve says he has a "special bond" with Ella, one of six grandchildren.
"She just captivates you. She'll have her good days and she'll have her bad days, that's what autism's like."
Planning is a big part of achieving those successes. Several weeks before a recent holiday to Tauranga, photos of the house they would stay in, the driveway, the living room and Ella's room were put on the fridge. Ella was told this was the house they would be staying in soon.
Steve says her reaction to this new environment when she arrived was staggering.
"She walked in the door like she'd been there all her life," Steve says. "She had a ball. You just have to prepare and do things differently."
Last month she went to a cousin's birthday, the first time all six grandchildren had been in the same room for an extended period. When the party got noisy she put her earmuffs on.
"That's how much she's developed," Steve says.
She also attends daycare where she has the help of a teacher aide.
"She's made a few little close friends at kindy, which is good," Anna says.
Next month Ella will start at Westend Primary.
The Pedleys say they have been lucky to receive funding for a teacher aide to work with Ella, something which should be available to her throughout her school life and not something every family in their position gets.
Steve: "That's the scary thing, some of these kids are going to school without any help."
Anna: "Every child needs a fair go at education."
While Ella could read by the time she was 3, she only started talking last year. Anna says she doubts Ella understands yet what being autistic means, though she has learnt to say the word.
Tony: "She understands more than she expresses."
Anna: "She's normal, she just thinks differently."
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