WA mother Clara Harris shares her story of depression, autism, love and acceptance

Autism disability Women Women empowerment

Clara Harris's eyes still well with tears as she recounts the depths of her depression some 15 years ago.

Her life had hit a terrible low as she grappled with declining mental health while raising a son with autism.

But that depression eventually became a launching pad for positive change.

Over the past 11 years, Ms Harris has embarked on a quest to share her warts-and-all story to help others caring for people with autism or struggling with poor mental health.

It's the story she wishes she'd heard 20 years ago.

Ms Harris wants anyone experiencing the difficulties that can come when raising a child with autism — the meltdowns, the social isolation, the lack of communication and the worry — to know that they are not alone.

She wants them to find hope in her story.

For Ms Harris's story is ultimately one of the love and beauty that unfolded when she learned the art of accepting her son exactly as he was.

Historical photo of a smiling baby on his stomach.
Sam was a happy, smiling baby who delighted his parents.(

Supplied: Harris Family

)

Swimming with sharks

Ms Harris now gives talks to organisations and community groups to reveal the mental health challenges she faced as her son's primary carer.

Her talk is titled "Swimming with Sharks" in reference to a terrible moment on the beach 15 years ago when she found herself wishing a shark would take her child as he frolicked in the waves.

The honesty and vulnerability Ms Harris reveals when telling her story have struck a chord with listeners.

Their feedback is awash with gratitude for her courage, wisdom and the sense of hope she instils while recounting her journey from despair to loving acceptance.

The dreaded diagnosis

Ms Harris and her husband Damian were ecstatic when they brought their first-born child, Sam, home from hospital to their family farm in Midwest WA. Here was a happy and thriving baby who melted their hearts with his smiles.

But by the time Sam had reached 18 months, they had started to worry. He wasn't reaching the milestones of other toddlers his age. He was obsessed with a newsreader on TV. And he had meltdowns around other children.

After months of visits to doctors and long journeys to meet medical professionals, they finally received the diagnosis they had dreaded — their little boy had autism.

Child of the village

As the Harris family reeled from the reality of trying to access specialised help from their remote family farm, their extensive friendship network stepped up to help.

"One of the guys rang me one day and said, 'We all want to help you with Sambo'" Ms Harris said.

A tractor carrying an old donga on a farm.
The tight-knit farming community of Binnu raised funds to start 'Sam's School' in an old donga on the family's farm.(

Supplied: Harris Family

)

They set about fundraising, enabling the Harris family to employ two local women to be trained as specialist educators. Someone found an old donga in which they set up a classroom. And Sam's School was born.

So successful was the homeschooling that Sam was able to join his peers at the local Binnu School Primary School, with the help of teachers' aides.

Keen to ensure she was transparent about the use of the community funding, Ms Harris began updating their tight-knit farming community on Sam's progress.

And that's how Sam became, in Ms Harris's words, a "child of the village".

'I've learnt loving acceptance'

While Sam thrived, Ms Harris fell into depression. She agonised over missed milestones. She lamented Sam's difference from his friends. And she resented being unable to hang out with her friends and their children, in case Sam had a meltdown in their presence.

When their daughter Sophie was born and Sam became rough with the newborn, Ms Harris despaired.

She admits that eventually she became so low and felt so isolated that she contemplated suicide.

But, with the love of her family and friends, she rallied, eventually making the difficult decision to leave the family farm to move to the regional city of Geraldton, where the family would have greater access to support.

With extra help, Ms Harris was eventually able to take a step back to look at the bigger picture.

Young adult man with autism when stamp ink covering his face.
Sam Harris wins hearts with his sense of humour and fun.(

ABC Midwest And Wheatbelt: Samille Mitchell

)

"I have learnt loving acceptance, and I have learned the day I accepted that my dreams and hopes and expectations for Sam were mine, and not his, and the day that it clicked for me that, hang on a minute, what I'm missing, and what I think Sam is missing, actually has nothing to do with Sam Harris.

"His outlook on life and his ability to recognise a good person when he sees one is so valuable, and the joy that he brings to people by just being himself, I can't say that I've come across that anywhere else."

Sharing her story

Recognising the power of the Harris family's story, a healthcare worker suggested Ms Harris share her experiences with others.

She had her sister whip up a Power Point presentation and headed to the big smoke for her first talk.

Overwhelmed with positive feedback, she has since embarked on a quest to share her story as widely as she can.

For, while Mr and Ms Harris still worry about Sam's future, and work hard to keep him socially engaged now that he's finished school, they have come to cherish what they have learned.

Ms Harris hopes sharing her story will help others who may be struggling in the way she once struggled.

She hopes to help them realise their child is special just as they are, no matter what their "label".

 

Source: ABC


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