Iris Grace is a seven year old little girl with a massive talent for painting. Her work has been compared to Monet and has been bought and shared by the likes of Angelina Jolie and Daniel Radcliffe.
Iris also happens to have Autism.
Professionals were ready to give up on her, writing her off and offering outdated, one size fits all techniques, but Iris’s mother, Arabella Carter-Johnson knew that there was so much beneath the surface that wasn’t being seen. She knew that if she could find the right way to communicate with this beautiful little spirit, she would help Iris to escape her anxiety and reach her true potential.
She was a mother on a mission and she wouldn’t give up on her child.
I was lucky enough to get Arabella to agree to an interview for Love Parenting, in which she shares how she made the decision to walk away from her dream of sending Iris to school and choose interest based home education instead. She discusses the affect nature has on Iris’s behaviour, and her personal coping mechanisms that helped her survive the darkest days and long sleepless nights with a child who didn’t like to switch off.
In the book, you talk about the drastic effect time in nature had on Iris and her behaviour. Can you share what you noticed and how Iris changed in that environment? How would her behaviour differ if she was unable to access nature?
When Iris was younger, even when she was a baby she was always much more relaxed outside in the garden or in the countryside. It would have an effect of relaxation but then also she was able to focus so much better out there and learn better away from the electrical noises of the home, washing machines, computers, lights even. I think she can pick up on those subtle noises like the hum from a dimmer switch. To us they merge into the background but for her they don’t.
When she goes into a room Iris sees everything, she notices straight away if one of her favourite books isn’t where she last left it. Think of it like most typical people have a filter on, children on the spectrum don’t. All their senses can become overwhelmed by the information coming in at them and that’s when she would become distressed or shut down. I think of it like ‘shut downs’ now rather than ‘meltdowns.’
For Iris it’s a coping mechanism, you can see her eyes glaze over and she becomes non responsive to the outside world. When she was younger this would then result in tantrum like behaviour afterwards, now she just closes all the unwanted info away but unfortunately that means us too, but once but you take her outside everything calms down.
The natural rhythms, sounds, wind in the trees can be exciting and intriguing but not offensive or upsetting for Iris. She becomes stimulated and open to new experiences, her mind feels more flexible with clear thoughts and she starts to talk to me.
Throughout the process of Iris being diagnosed with Autism, you had to fight against the system to get support and answers. You were often given outdated guidance and tools to help support your child. What would be your advice to parents who are in the early stages of getting a diagnosis for their child? What helped you get through this stressful period?
Remember who the experts are, you are the expert in your own child, you and all the members of your family or the people who spend the most time with them. Could be a grandparent, friend, therapist… To know how to move forwards and support a child on the spectrum you first need to study the child, observe them, know them like you know yourself.
What do they like to play with, feel, touch, explore? What music do they like, what books, pictures, places, toys.
You also need to know what they don’t like too, any bad sensory triggers as well as the good. Notice how they learn and where they learn best. All of these pieces of information are crucial and will always be far more powerful in helping your child than any professional that sits behind a desk seeing your child for the first time.
We have years of research already under our belts specifically on that child. Autism is a way of living and being, there will never be a one size fits all answer but there are certain guidelines you can follow that will enable your child to learn effectively.
I am embarking on a new and very exciting project called Kids Must Move with bestselling author Rupert Isaacson who has inspired me in the past. It’s an online course that enables parents and teachers to teach children on the autistic spectrum (or any child for that matter) in a stress free way using movement, being in nature and following the child’s interests.
Rupert talked to me about their ‘Movement Method’ that his team have been developing over the last 10 years. It was a revelation to me as their methods echoed mine. All the things that I knew worked with Iris were in this course. At last I knew the science behind it all, why it was working so well with her.
After finishing the course myself I wanted to join their team and be a part of this incredible new movement in Autism that will change so many lives. I will be running the UK Movement Method Centre from my home in Leicestershire, England. We will be offering training to parents, teachers, workshops, activity days, talks and outreach to schools.
We share the same ethos that children on the spectrum, children with neurological differences can learn, succeed and thrive. They can grow up to have jobs, careers, love, at the centre of our society. Relegating them to the margins robs us of some of the best human resources.
We embrace who they are, not trying to coerce them into being something they are not.
We believe in what’s within each child working with their strengths and interests in an environment that suits them. We follow them, inspired and guided by our children.
Home educating was not in your original plan for your family. When did you realise it was the right choice for Iris? How did you feel about heading down this new path?
That was when we were trying to get Iris settled in pre school, it was disastrous and very upsetting for the whole family. I made the decision then to home educate until school age and then after further attempts to find a suitable school – all of which failed, I decided to educate her from home on a long term basis.
I was excited and it felt empowering but worrying too. There is no (special educational needs) support in the UK for home schoolers, once you are out of the system that it, you are out. You have to be resilient, strong, self motivated and have an open mind. If you keep the ethos of ‘Follow the child’ it becomes a way of life fitting in beautifully, but that can take some time.
Iris is an exceptionally brilliant artist. When did you realise she had a gift for painting? How did you support her in reaching her highest potential?
We discovered Iris loved to paint after our attempts at pre school, she was 3 years old. At first painting was just on my ‘to do’ list of activities that I wanted her to try and it wasn’t intended as a therapy or a way to connect with her. Then I noticed how much she enjoyed it, how relaxed and happy she was while she worked and how her body language changed.
She was at that time mostly buried behind a fortress of books never letting anyone even sit beside her on the sofa. When she painted she danced on tiptoes in the kitchen, in the centre of our family home, delightfully requesting what she wanted by guiding my hand to the paint or back to the tap for more water. It was then I decided to leave the painting kit and table out for her everyday so she may use it when ever she needed to.
I even took everything outside in the garden so she could be in nature while she painted. It was the start to something that would change everything for our family but at the time it was just doing one simple thing and that was to follow her interests.
Do you think you would have realised the extent of her talent if she was in a school environment? Could she have flourished in those circumstances?
Definitely not in regards to her painting, in a pre school environment it can be chaotic and noisy, there is generally one easel that was left out and any child could use it at any time so it wasn’t hers alone. Then there is the fact it was on an easel so the paint drips down the cheap thin paper and it crumples which is frustrating when you have worked on something.
I believe even when a child is young to give them good quality materials that won’t put them off trying and that will enhance and make the experience enjoyable.
Also surrounding her with inspiration so painting outside or listening to music, all of which isn’t that easy to do in a school setting. Not impossible though for a typical child but for one on the spectrum who is highly sensitive it would be more challenging.
You mention in the book how difficult it has been to get enough sleep and how much of a struggle that was for the whole family. How did you manage these struggles? Did you find a way to make time for your own self care during those periods of exhaustion?
I had a lot of support from my family which helped immensely in those darker times. I found peace with my own photography and chose to portray the beauty in life which lifted me up even in the most tiring times. The truth is, when you are raising and educating a child on the spectrum the idea of ‘me time’ making time for yourself isn’t easy at all. I have found ways but they are generally simple things like going for a walk, taking time to do my photography.
Only now 7 years in am I getting to the stage where I can go away for a weekend or a week of travel for business. I have found it’s more a state of mind, deciding in that moment when all is going well and you are watching your child enjoy themselves to take a deep breath and to relax. A moment when you say to yourself everything is going to be OK and you are doing as much as you can to support them.
When Iris began to paint and you saw how engaging and positive it was for her, you decided to hold off on all the activities you had planned out for her, and enable her the freedom to follow her passions instead. What did you find when you stepped back and followed her lead? How did she blossom?
When you follow the child’s lead and go with their interests it’s like finding a magic key or formula, you can’t believe that you didn’t realise it before and how much you struggled. Everything suddenly slots into place and fits.
Iris was able to learn and communicate much more easily if I was following her. The difficult part is letting go, trying not to focus on all the hard work you put into preparing a particular activity that they aren’t interested in anymore and going where they are at in that moment.
Later on it gets easier, you can stealthily create activities and educational games that still use their interests but teach the desired topic or skill but at first it needs to be pure follow the child, to gain their trust and respect, to totally immerse ourselves in their world.
When you began sharing the paintings with the world, you were suddenly inundated with a vast amount of media attention. How did you stay grounded as a family during the frenzy of interview requests? Have you managed to find a good balance between work and family?
Yes, keeping the balance has always been at the heart of it all. I wanted to raise positive awareness for autism and to inspire other families but never let things get out of control at our end. We have protected Iris from the media and always will. Her painting must remain a sanctuary for her, something she does when she needs to and when she feels like it, without outside pressures.
I am the only one who photographs her apart from a close friend who come in occasionally to photograph us as a family. Even though my workload has increased lately Iris is at the centre of everything we do and that won’t change. We make time everyday to spend time together, learn together and to enjoy being outdoors.
Would you recommend home education to other families whose children don’t feel comfortable in a school environment? Do you have any regrets about taking this path with Iris?
I would certainly recommend home education but it isn’t going to be for everyone. For one it’s practical things like money. You will probably be cut down to one income stream which for some families isn’t going to work. I would be lying if I said it was easy, a dream come true… some days are going to be hard, some days you will have regrets but they are far outweighed by the benefits and all the incredible experiences and learning opportunities you can give to your child, and those are precious.
To me it’s a way of life now, it’s us, it fits but there may come a time when Iris wants to try school again and we will support her in that, we will follow her.
Arabella Carter-Johnson is Iris Grace’s mother and a professional photographer. In 2008, she and her husband Peter-Jon settled in the rolling hills of Leicestershire where Arabella grew up. Arabella and Peter-Jon’s daughter, Iris Grace, was born in 2009 and their lives changed forever. Arabella has documented their journey through diary entries and photographs and now tells Iris’s story in her first book.
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