For The Madera Tribune
Aaron J, Wright, author of “Daisy has Autism.”
I learned at a school board meeting recently that Madera’s schools are participating in Autism Awareness Month. How ironic, then, that someone came along and gave me a copy of a new book, “Daisy has Autism.” It was written by Aaron J. Wright (Madera High School class of 1993), and I want to tell you about it — I just have to tell you about it.
As I turned the pages of Aaron’s book, my heart and my mind went up separate paths. On the one hand, I hurt for the Nurse Practitioner and his family. On the other hand, I could barely contain my anger. Aaron’s book is a work of creative non-fiction. Basically, that means he told a true story — his family’s story — but gave everybody a made-up name. Thus, Aaron becomes Arthur; his wife becomes Annie; his son is Charlie, his daughter is “Magda” or Magdalena, and the villains in the story have an assortment of names. Daisy is their dog; she has Autism, and that’s how the story begins.
Arthur and Annie have moved back to Davis, CA. where both of them had lived before graduation. Armed with graduate degrees and little Charlie, Annie chose not to teach for a while, as Arthur worked in a hospital in Sacramento. They decided to adopt a dog, and that’s how Daisy came into the picture.
It didn’t take Arthur long to realize Daisy was different. She was like a “yo-yo” on a leash. All she could do was spin in circles; she was like a “wild Mustang,” and if she was aware of any of the family, she showed no signs of being able to relate to them.
The expectation was that she would settle down, but she didn’t. Daisy continued to “bounce off the bumpers of chairs,” and “deflect off the flippers of furniture.” She didn’t sleep much or nap at all. She was a bundle of hyperactivity with her ear flapping and constant licking. No doubt about it, their dog was different. It was time to get some help.
The visit to the Drop the Leash Canine Academy proved to be a colossal waste of time and money. The tests performed by the veterinarian were just as useless. Arthur and Annie rejected the “professional” assessment that there was “nothing wrong.” Something was definitely wrong. Daisy had some sort of “invisible disability.”
On Oct. 12, 2005, Magdalena Mae joined the Russell family, and before long it was apparent that all was not well on that front either. In fact, after Magda was born, understanding Daisy became easier for the Russells. Their daughter and their puppy “both shared impairment in the organization of their movements, a disorganized response to sensory signals, and an inflexible devotion to the particular.” Before long, Arthur and Annie were forced to develop a repertoire of tricks to control “the howling banshee that emerged every time they tried to buckle Magda into her car seat, get her dressed, or cut her hair.”
By the end of Magda’s first summer, concern turned into action. An MRI that showed no abnormalities was followed by a stream of therapists seeking to evaluate and treat her lack of communication. Meanwhile, things got worse. As Magda neared her third birthday, she could hardly go to the grocery store without “falling completely apart.” Sometimes her tantrums alternated with complete introversion and shutdown. Through it all, there was only one constant--Magda seemed calm and content when she was with Daisy.
When it came time for pre-school for Magda, Arthur and Annie opted for Carmen Ventura’s Caterpillar Academy. She operated on the principle that “You shouldn’t try to teach fish to run or butterflies to swim. Carmen thought you ought to let kids work out what they are good at so they can start to feel good about it. The Russells went along with that idea as they continued to search for help for their daughter who according to the physicians’ diagnosis was the victim of Autism.
Arthur and Annie suspected that they were in for a battle when they determined to ask the Yolo Union School District to place Magda in Special Education. Several of their friends who had had experience with the schools in Davis were able to give the Russells first-hand knowledge of bureaucratic resistance in similar cases.
Signs of the battle which was about to consume them began when Arthur came home one day and found Annie sitting on the steps by the front door. Her arms were wrapped around her legs as she pulled them to her chest. She looked at her husband with a face “contorted to hold back the tears until it ruptured under pressure and a torrent burst forth.”
“She isn’t going to qualify; she is going to have to go to kindergarten without help,” Annie cried.
Later, at night looking at his daughter. “With a heaving sigh, she sinks into sleep… She is beautiful,” he thought. “The involuntary control of voluntary muscles has ceased, and there is peace in her paralysis. Her face has softened; the tension is gone….”
“But I dare not shift my course,” he thinks, the jerk of her leg lets me know that this state of rest is temporary, and so is my control,” he adds.
Arthur slips into bed and tries to sleep. He’s going to need the rest, for he has just begun to fight. He knows he and Annie have a fearful, powerful enemy.
Please meet me again next time, and allow me to tell you about that enemy and how the battle that was so unnecessary unfolded.