Feature On The Archdiocese of Sydney Website

Feature that was published on Sydney Catholic News on May 22nd, 2015

A Son With Autism is a Great Blessing and Precious Gift

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
22 May 2015

Raising a son with autism is an ongoing challenge in a world where most people know little about autism, and where most teachers and the school system provides almost no training to support a student with special needs. But Randa Habelrih, the dedicated and devoted mother of 18-year-old Richard is determined to change this.
Randa has written a moving, insightful and inspiring book, “Dealing with Autism: How I successfully Raised My Child with Autism and How You Can Too…”

The book will be launched next week by the Hon John Ajaka, NSW Minister for Ageing and Disability at a ceremony attended by Bishop Peter Comensoli at the University of Notre Dame. It is very much a personal journey and shares the great joy Richard has brought to herself, her husband Elias and elder daughter Emily, enriching their lives with his quirkiness, sense of humour and above all his courage and unconditional love.

“As a parent, I teach him but in a way Richard is MY teacher. He has taught me so much, including the meaning of patience, understanding, acceptance and honour. He teaches me every day how to love unconditionally. How? By example. That’s the only way he knows,” she writes.

She describes her son as her hero and a precious gift from God.

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Randa Habelrih’s personal story shines a light on autism and the courage and outstanding achievements of her son Richard

Richard’s sister, Emily who is currently undertaking a post graduate degree in Clinical Psychology and plans to work with children with special needs, and in particular autism, says Richard is her inspiration.

“My relationship with Richard is simple,” she says. “He is my best friend. The end.”

Growing up with an adored brother who has autism may not always be easy, but Emily insists her relationship with Richard is pretty much the same as most other siblings. “He steals my things, he calls me fat, and I pull the doona off him when he is trying to sleep in, and run away with it.”

Randa Habelrih’s personal story shines a light on autism and the courage and outstanding achievements of her son Richard
Although not classed as high functioning on the Autism Spectrum, Richard’s achievements are outstanding. In July 2013 he was a member of the Catholic Education Office’s contingent to World Youth Day in Rio. Crammed onto Copacabana Beach for the closing Mass, Richard sensed the enormity of the occasion and when asked by his mother if he knew why everyone was on the beach, instantly replied “Yes. The Pope came.”

For the young man, WYD13 was an unforgettable experience equalled only by his pride and joy last year, when against all the odds he graduated from high school and stepped up to receive his Higher School Certificate.

Thanks to early intervention by Randa from the time he was just eight months old, together with the Habelrih family’s love and determination he has continued to defy the odds.

He has been assisted every day with a group of outstanding therapists and doctors together with the patient, empathetic and kindness of staff at Maroubra’s St Mary and St Joseph Primary School, and later at Pagewood’s Champagnat Catholic College.

What is remarkable is that although Richard was not officially diagnosed with autism by doctors and a paediatric neurologist until he was four years old, Randa suspected this was the reason her six month old son was not making eye contact, wasn’t waving or starting to talk or interacting with those around him.

“That was more than 17 years ago when diagnoses were made much later. But even though Richard’s doctors would only say that he was “globally developmentally delayed” which is a sanitised way of saying something is wrong but don’t quite know what to tell parents, and warned me he might never walk, I refused to believe them,” she says.

Convinced Richard had autism and knowing the importance of early intervention, Randa researched all the various autism therapies in use at the time, and quitting her job as a high flying marketing executive with an international cosmetic company, created an intervention therapy program for Richard.

Five years older than Richard, Emily clearly remembers the early intervention physical therapy eight hours a day, six days a week that began when he was just six months old.

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Randa with husband Elias whom she calls her rock

“It used to pain me to see him cry and scream in response to therapy. He was so little. I didn’t undertand the necessity or importance for these strange procedures, but I remember very clearly that he would stop crying and fighting the physical therapy if I stood by his head and let him know I was there,” she writes.

By the time Richard was five years old, the little boy could not only walk but was also talking and could read and write above his age level.

But there have been many rough patches along the way.

One of the most telling, and deeply troubling, occurred when Richard was enrolled at a public primary school after Randa was given advice by professionals that the state school system was best resourced for autistic children.

This was certainly not the case for Richard. Not only was he an immediate target for bullies, no action was taken by his teacher who ignored repeated incidents where Richard was kicked, shoved and hurt, and his belongings flushed down the toilet.

He would arrive home covered in cuts, scratches, bruises, the victim of countless taunts that he did not understand and from being a happy passive child, became unsettled, tearful and unable to sleep at night.

In echoes of the recent case at a Canberra primary school where the principal installed an autistic child in a specially constructed cage in the classroom over a six month period, Richard’s teacher took no action and instead blamed him but not the perpetrators. Despite Randa and Elias contacting the principal, the area district office, their local MP and the Office of the NSW Minister for Education, nothing was done.

Then shockingly, Richard was suspended from the school after he tried to defend himself and kicked one of the gang of young bullies.

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The Habelrih family (l to r) Richard, Elias, Randa and Emily

Thankfully, his experience at St Mary’s and St Joseph’s Primary, Maroubra was completely different. Here, the children and their parents befriended Richard and included him in their birthday parties and other activities. But it is what the children did off their own bat at the Year 6 athletics carnival in Richard’s final year that has Randa’s eyes welling with tears.

“His class mates agreed amongst themselves that they would all slow down and let Richard cross the finish line first,” she says adding that not even the staff knew of this selfless plan.

Randa has nothing but praise for the Archdiocese of Sydney’s Catholic Education Office and has been invited to be a member of the Governance Party to provide expertise, advice and guidance for the Eileen O’Connor Catholic College at Lewisham for children with special learning needs.

However with 250,000, or one in 100 children across Australia, diagnosed with autism not only are many education systems lagging behind, but teachers receive little more than an hour or so of how to respond to children with autism or other special needs. Randa is also concerned that many GPs and paediatricians still have little understanding of autism or the latest therapies and the importance of early intervention.

“Most of what I have learned about autism has come from other parents of children with an autism diagnosis, and from autism parent support groups. Their knowledge has been invaluable. They have walked the path before me and have been overwhelmingly generous with their time, help and support,” she says.

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Older sister Emily adores Richard and calls him her best friend

For Randa, who quit her job as marketing executive with an international cosmetic company to devote herself to Richard’s intervention therapies, she has never had a moment’s regret for her former life and cannot imagine life without her beloved son with his quirks, unconditional love and sense of humour.

“In the early months when I was still grieving and unsure about the future, I learned about the Marian apparitions in Medjugorje, the little village in what used to be known as Yugoslavia,” she says. Randa recalls that come what may, she was determined to get there. “I naively thought, that if I could have my prayer heard, Richard would be healed. So I made my way to other side of the world where my prayer was indeed heard by God. But sometimes God does not answer in the way you expect. Instead of Richard, I was the one who received the healing. I found an inner peace that I had not known since the night Richard was born. I was finally able to see Richard as the gift he was and I felt privileged and honoured to be his mother.”

To find out more about Randa, see her award winning short documentary and to buy her book (rrp $29.99) that will inspire and empower all parents of children log on to: http://dealingwithautism.com.au/my-book-dealing-with-autism/

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