Veronica had shown compromised development from an early age. She missed the usual childhood milestones, and by the time she was three and a half she still couldn’t walk, talk, eat or sleep properly.
Because she was tall for her age, Veronica was referred to a paediatric physiotherapist. Each week, the physiotherapist would ask her to copy different actions – “Let’s hop around like kangaroos” – and each week the session ended with Veronica in tears.
After four months, Sam and her husband received a letter saying that Veronica had been discharged from physiotherapy. She couldn’t run, jump or play. She was no closer to climbing stairs. But the letter was unequivocal: she had ‘reached her full potential’.
Fast-forward five years, and stairs are child’s play. Veronica swims, types, and rides her tricycle in the park on Sundays. Where once she drooled and used a bib, she can now make herself a bowl of cereal and drink through a straw. For the first time in her life, she uses the toilet by herself. In hundreds of small ways, she has dignity and hope.
“I struggle to tell people how transformed Veronica is,” says Sam.
Of course, it’s not a miracle – it’s ABA, the programme of Applied Behaviour Analysis that BeyondAutism and others have pioneered in the UK. Sam first came across ABA in Edinburgh, where a local charity was using the principles of ABA with young people on the autism spectrum. With just two hours a week over four months – the same period spent playing kangaroo with the physiotherapist – Veronica learned to climb stairs on her own and to ‘talk’ using picture cards. Summer was coming, and Veronica’s family dared to dream of a holiday. Of train stations and airports. Or even just a walk to the supermarket.
Another detail sticks in Sam’s mind: 17th March 2013, the day Veronica arrived at Rainbow School (now BeyondAutism Schools).
“Rainbow School has transformed Veronica,” says Sam. “It has given her an understanding of the world, and she’s gone from being completely disengaged and withdrawn to being a cheeky, happy, proud communicator. When you have a child who doesn’t engage, you don’t know if you are loving them properly. Now I know.”
Veronica’s success with ABA has turned Sam into one of the programme’s most passionate advocates.
“ABA is a system that can accommodate all of Veronica’s disabilities – sensory, physical, communication – all at the same time. It teaches complex problem solving. It encourages children to be creative. And it allows us to see how clever but how trapped our children are. One of the best things about Rainbow School is that the staff know how clever she is. They believe in her. In the past, teachers have just thought I was deluded.”
Once, it was hard to look at Veronica and see her potential. Now, it can be easy to forget how close she came to being left behind.
But Sam hasn’t forgotten. She’s diamond-clear about the difference ABA has made to her family. “Without Rainbow School Veronica would have had to use a wheelchair for longer outings, and would’ve been full-time in nappies. We would have completely and utterly broken down as a family. But none of these things have happened, and I now know that none of these things has to happen, because of schools like Rainbow School.”
“I don’t want anyone to think that this transformation would have happened otherwise,” she says. “There are tens of thousands of Veronicas out there. I want to speak to those parents and give them hope.’
While Sam shares her hopes, Veronica has her own ideas. Helping herself to a yoghurt from the fridge, maybe, or riding her scooter. Through it all, she continues to grow – and to show her family just how much they can hope for.