Mum of boy with severe autism: 'Raising him has taught me so much about myself'
Mitchell Johnston is nine years old and was born with autism. His mum Cathy says that while raising him hasn't always been easy, the experience has made her a better person.
I first grew concerned when he was six weeks old. Mitchell was as floppy as a newborn. There was no eye contact. Whenever there was a loud noise, he wouldn't respond in any distinguishable way. The day he was finally diagnosed was the worst day of my life. I spent the whole day in tears.
Mitchell is classed as non-verbal because of his autism. He doesn't talk at all. He does communicate by actions even if he doesn't communicate through words. It's often a guessing game to understand what he means.
When people first meet Mitchell, I normally introduce him by name and leave it at that. If he's making a really loud noise, I might add that he has special needs. They don't need to know about us, and the story is too long anyway.
This article was supplied as part of Stuff's partnership with Unicef NZ
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Mitchell is one of twins. Dayna is his twin sister and she's always sticking up for him.
She says things like: "Don't pick on my twin brother. He's my twin! He's my twin!"
The level of interaction with other kids just isn't there because of his autism, and that's the thing I find hardest to deal with.
When Mitchell was a little boy, he would respond to music. He saw a music therapist who would play the piano for him.
He took to playing the piano himself, in his own way. He'd thump random keys on the keyboard, and sometimes it would sound quite beautiful. The music makes him laughs a lot. It seems to put him at peace and calm him down.
He doesn't like every kind of music though. If there's loud rock music at a birthday party, he'll stamp his feet and stick his fingers in his ears. I know then he's not happy.
There is the odd person who's quite rude about Mitchell, thinking he's naughty.
"Oh, this mother!" or "Naughty child!" they'd say.
I can't take him to the supermarket and we've had to leave family funerals. I still receive negative attitudes from time to time, and inside I'm seething.
Since he started school, life has become much easier. He has been learning basic skills for life. The most simple tasks that you and I take for granted are sometimes a real struggle for him.
He may have this disability that I would never wish on anyone, but he is actually doing incredibly well. He's walking while a lot of kids at his school can't even do that.
The day first time Mitchell walked was in a public playground. My husband was holding Mitchell's hand and Dayna's hand at the same time. He said: "I'm the proudest dad in the world – I'm holding both my twin's hands."
Mitchell walked around without a care in the world, and it was as if he had always walked.
It's still hard in the sense that I can't hold down a full-time job. But I have no time to dwell on the situation – my other kids keep me very busy.
In some ways, I've become a better person, not a bitter person. The experience of raising Mitchell has taught me so much about myself.
It's hard work but I love it, and I honestly wouldn't swap Mitchell for anything or any other child.
• As told to Unicef New Zealand. Unicef NZ stands for every child so they can have a childhood, and we're celebrating New Zealand's first ever Disability Pride Week (November 27–December 3).
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