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Written by Lisa Cecconi
“She’ll never talk—at least not be capable of conversations; she’ll never go to a regular school—unless it’s in a highly restrictive special education environment, and she’ll never be able to share a bedroom with her sister. She’ll be much too disruptive.”
Did I just hear correctly? Did this very prominent doctor—a highly-respected physician in his field, who held a top position in the child development division of a prestigious hospital—just tell me that my daughter was not only autistic, but that the rest of her life would, from what I was gathering, completely suck? Had he gleaned this vision of her future from spending 90 minutes in a room with her? Or did he just have an exquisitely unpolished bedside manner?
The next day I went to my parents’ house and broke the news to them. Amid the feeling of despair, I’ll never forget what my brother said. “She’s still the same person she was before she walked into that doctor’s office. She’s still Briana.” That sentiment has got me through more than I can ever explain to anyone. She didn’t change into something else because someone gave her a label.
Yes, I’d known early on that something wasn’t right. Briana wasn’t developing in the same way as other toddlers in the neighborhood, nor was she much interested in interacting with them…or with anyone, for that matter. She seemed to only be interested in one thing: watching Barney videos, sometimes pressing her little body up against the screen trying to enter the purple dinosaur’s world. “I go in,” she’d say, wanting desperately to be part of Barney’s Backyard Gang. When given a gift, whether it be a Barbie, a new dress, or any other toy, over which most little girls would squeal with delight, she’d set the gift aside, opting to either play with the box in which it came, or go back to her favorite activity, tapping two pencils together.
One night when Briana was about 18 months old, I was watching a CBS Sunday Night Movie called Cries from the Heart. Melissa Gilbert’s character had a son who was autistic, and although his behavior was very severe (unlike Briana’s), the boy displayed traits that caught my attention. By the end of that movie, I knew Briana was autistic. (This was before our infamous doctor visit). I went upstairs, got in the shower, and cried the hardest cry I’d ever cried.
I began researching in the library (pre-internet explosion, so Googling wasn’t an option), and attending conferences, whether it meant getting on a plane to Philadelphia, New Jersey, Denver…anywhere I heard there was something to learn about autism. I even saw the great Temple Grandin speak several times. What an honor to meet her, and to have had one-on-one conversations with her about Briana.
A few years later, I was in the same hospital where Briana had been diagnosed, and was waiting for an elevator. The doors opened and, lo and behold, there stood Dr. Wonderful. I stepped inside and began what was surely the longest elevator ride of my life. Neither of us spoke (he obviously didn’t recognize me), as we journeyed in silence. What I wanted to say with every ounce of my being was, Hi, remember me? The mother of the child of whose future you predicted would be abysmal? Guess what? She talks, she goes to a regular public school, and oh…she shares a room with her sister. So, thanks for your prediction, but you may want to stay out of the clairvoyant business from now on. At the time I didn’t feel it was worth the breath it took to utter those words. If it were today, however, I’m certain that that elevator ride wouldn’t have been nearly so quiet.
What do I want for Briana, who is now approaching her 25th birthday? I’m pretty sure it’s the same things every other parent wants for their child: To lead a fulfilling life, one that brings joy every single day. To have friends. To do things she enjoys. To grow into an incredible woman. To be accepted and not marginalized. A life that connects her to others, where she is surrounded by love, is challenged to stretch beyond that of which she or anyone else thinks she is capable, and yes, to contribute. This is my dream.
Sunflower Hill also represents a dream. My gratitude for the remarkable group of people driving this idea into existence is beyond measure, and the thought of Briana residing there one day is truly exhilarating. And possible. Because I know firsthand, dreams do come true.