“I love you!” Is what every parent hopes their child will say to their new baby sibling upon arriving home from the hospital. But when our three year old daughter with autism said those words to her new baby sister without any prompting, we couldn’t have been more surprised and thankful. Leah was diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder at age 2 and lost much of her language starting at 18 months of age. Moments of breakthrough communication were always something to celebrate, and still are to this day.
As our daughters grew, they always stayed loving and supportive toward each other. I began to imagine what would happen when our younger daughter started making friends and how she would respond to questions about her sister. This inspired the children’s book, Leah’s Voice. The fictional story shares the moment a young girl is told about her sister’s autism diagnosis. It also embraces how having a sibling with special needs can have a positive impact too. Learning at a young age to have compassion and accept others’ differences, makes siblings exceptional role models for their peers.
One example of this was when our younger daughter started attending the same school as Leah. We knew she was an extremely loving and supportive sister, however, faced with the unknown comments or questions about her autistic sister could be awkward or embarrassing for a 2nd grader. Her older sister also had a one-on-one aide who accompanied her during the school day, making it more noticeable she has special needs. A very telling moment was the day her sister darted into her classroom to say “hello”. After the aide escorted her sister out, our daughter was left with all of her classmates looking at her. Without hesitation she said, “That’s my sister Leah. Sorry she came in here, she just wanted to see me. Things are a little harder for her because she has autism.” Not only was she not embarrassed, but she proudly stated that was her sister. To bring awareness to autism, our younger daughter now in 5th grade, initiated the first autism ribbon campaign for autism awareness day in her school.
Although the story shares the challenges autism brings, it also celebrates the abilities of those on the spectrum. Leah’s award winning artwork is not only part of the story, but was also incorporated into some of the illustrations by the illustrator. Creating a story that would be useful for families and educators to start a discussion about autism, and teach acceptance and understanding, was my goal when writing Leah’s Voice. Through a young girl’s example, the story encourages treating everyone with kindness, and to give the gift of belonging to those who need it most.