Every parent has big dreams for their kids. From the moment their child is born, most parents look forward to seeing their successes in life: college, a good job, marriage, etc.
Which makes it hard for many parents to hear that their child is autistic. Given the stigma attached and the attitudes of many professionals, it can sound like being on the spectrum will hold you back from achieving anything in life.
But when one mother heard her daughter’s diagnosis, she refused to let it stop her from achieving her dreams, no matter what anyone said.
Gina Gallagher, from Marlborough, Massachusetts, always knew her daughter Katie was a bit quirky, but at a young age she never thought it was anything serious.
“In my eyes, Katie was as perfect as they came,” Gina told Today Parents.
But it was when Katie started attending school that the symptoms became more prominent. She struggled socially, never interacting with the other children. She had physical tics and was deeply uncoordinated.
“She was never invited to birthday parties,” Gina recalled. “And she started to show signs of learning issues.”
At age 7, she was falling so far behind her peers that a teacher called her mother and recommended she be tested.
Katie was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome—and her mother had a hard time processing the news.
This was 15 years ago, and there was less of an understanding of autism disorders, and as Gina read up on her daughter’s diagnosis, she became depressed at hearing what life had in store for her daughter.
“They said she would never leave home, never finish high school, never drive a car, never go away to college, never get married,” Gina recalled.
And Katie began to feel aware of her own setbacks.
“Third grade was awful,” Katie recalled to Today. “I realized I couldn’t do things others could do, and kids started to notice my flapping more. I got made fun of for it a lot. I didn’t have many friends.”
But while her mother was originally discouraged—and couldn’t help but notice the differences between Katie and the other parents’ “perfect” children—she eventually set out to encourage her daughter and make sure she had all the same opportunities and privileges as her peers.
“I used to read Katie ‘The Little Engine that Could,’ and I would tell her she was that little engine,” Gina explained.
“I told her, ‘You’re going to get to the same place everybody else is. It’s just a harder journey for you.'”
But things did get easier. After a rough start in school, Katie received a scholarship to a specialized private school who helped her thrive, participating in sports, school plays, and attending prom.
“It became not about what she can’t do but about what she can do,” her mother told Today.
“I saw her come out of her shell and blossom.”
Katie graduated high school—but the real test came when it was time to go to college.
Despite her mother’s hesitation, Katie insisted she was ready to go away and dorm. She was accepted to Banacos Academic Center at Massachusetts’ Westfield State University, a program set up to support students with learning disabilities while they still take the normal coursework.
She was determined to graduate, and for the past few years has continued to work her way through school, even balancing it with a part-time retail job.
Her mother supported her, knowing how important this was, but also let her fly on her own.
“Katie’s Westfield State was our Harvard University,” Gina explained. “She put her mind to something and she wanted it, so I just needed to back off and get out of her way and be there to pick her up if she stumbled.”
But all her hard work paid off—in spite of everything, Katie just recently graduated from college.
With her degree in hand, Katie’s next step is to find a full-time job.
But through this whole experience over the past 15 years, her mother has also found her calling. She co-authored the book Shut Up About Your Perfect Kid: A Survival Guide for Ordinary Parents of Special Children, published in 2010, which has grown into an online support network with over 900,000 Facebook followers.
Along with Katie, she gives speeches at schools to encourage students and parents affected by autism. She hopes that today’s parents will get a more hopeful diagnosis than the one she received 15 years ago.
“I needed someone back then to tell me this was possible, and no one was telling me that.”
She hopes parents of autistic children won’t be discouraged and still give them every chance to succeed. Or, as Katie puts it:
“Never give up. Never, ever give up.”