Mothers help daughters with autism ‘embrace their potential’
By Kathy Day
Moms know that the day is coming when their daughter’s focus changes from playing to a more social type of engagement – talking about fashion, hair, boys, being cool.
But for a group of local moms with autistic daughters, that day doesn’t come as naturally so they set out to do something about it.
Remembering the days as a 9- and 10-year-old when she had relationships with her girlfriends prompted Jazel Peterzell to start thinking about how to teach her daughter “the girl code.”
Her daughter, diagnosed with autism at 3 and a half, is now 11.
“I knew I could teach her a lot, but how much more fun to have a bunch of girls share the experience,” she said.
Because autism is a male-dominated condition, she could find only services “catering to the masses,” she said. “I asked myself, ‘Do I want her hanging out with older boys.’ ”
Peterzell began searching for a social club to meet her daughter’s needs — a place where she and other autistic girls could learn about “puberty, dating, relationships and sexuality so by the time they were 18 they could have a handle on it.”
Finding none, she posted a note on the special needs section within Valerie’s List, an informational website for parents, asking “Are there any other moms with girls like mine?”
And she began talking to Karyn Lewis Searcy, who had read her posting. The director of the Crimson Center for Speech and Language, a nonprofit based in Mira Mesa which provides services for children, teens and adults, she said when she heard about Peterzell’s idea, she thought, “That’s a good point she’s got.”
Soon, other moms answered the question with one of their own: Yes, what can we do?
One of them was Carol Fletcher, a Torrey Highlands resident who was also looking for a way for her 11-year-old daughter, who has atypical autism, to make friends. While she is very aware socially, very conversational and high functioning, she said, her daughter was “very aware she was different … and not comfortable with typical (the word used to describe children who develop “normally”) peers.”
Another was Srividya Ananthanarayanan, a Carmel Valley mother who has a 10-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son with autism, as well as a typical daughter who is 11. She learned about Peterzell’s efforts – which came to be known as Blue Roses Girls — through Searcy-Bair.
“We were just moms starting a social club,” Peterzell said.
Searcy said she offered a space for them to meet for free.
Her organization, founded in 2003, has become a sort of umbrella for other small organizations that are just starting out. She assists them with financial reporting and offers her expertise on external resources and program execution.
“I’m primarily there as a sounding board,” she said.
The Crimson Center also gave Blue Roses Girls a place to meet and make plans. Once the moms — who asked that their daughters’ names not be used for this report — started getting together on a regular basis, they talked about what fun it would be to have a fashion show with their daughters as models.
So they began planning and then meeting every other week at the Crimson Center, teaching the girls makeup skills, “how to walk the catwalk,” and all about fashion.
“For these girls, practice becomes routine,” said Ananthanarayanan.
But that practice didn’t come easy for her daughter, who had always been a tomboy. At the rehearsals she was upset by the music and didn’t want to be a part of it.
“She was so excited to do it … except she was in tears – and then I took her shopping,” she recalled.
They went to the Macy’s shoe section and she told her daughter to pick any shoes she wanted to wear in the show.
“She picked 6-inch, blue high heels and that was it,” Ananthanarayanan said, adding that they then went and bought a matching blue dress. “The next day she was wearing it at practice and all the moms wanted her shoes. She became so popular overnight.”
Now, she said, her daughter is “all about shoes. It brought out the feminine side of her.”
The fashion show, which drew 200 to Barona for the April event, was a huge success, Peterzell noted, and plans are in the works for another one.
About 30 girls, including “typically developing girls” and others with diagnoses ranging from anxiety disorders to cerebral palsy, participated.
“We’re not just about autism,” she added.
Blue Roses Girls is open to any “girls who experience social, sensory, cognitive and physical differences,” according to the website www.bluerosesgirls.com.
Meanwhile, the moms, again working with the Crimson Center, put together a week-long Camp Dolls for the girls in July where they did Zumba, yoga and had makeup lessons with students from the Marinello School of Beauty.
“The girls have developed amazing bonds,” Fletcher said. Although some like her daughter still practice “parallel play,” where they will play on their own with the others nearby, her daughter is always asking when the next play date is.
“It’s been amazing to see the growth in her,” she said. “She loves yoga pants, but we’ve been talking about the fact that she can’t wear them everywhere. … Now she’s starting to ask about jeans.”
Next up for the Blue Roses Girls’ moms is a conference in November, “Spotlighting Safety for All Girls” at the DoubleTree Golf Resort and Hotel in Rancho Penasquitos.
Peterzell said the “Roses in Bloom” event begins Nov. 2 with keynote remarks by Kim Stagliono, author of “All I Can Handle – I’m No Mother Theresa: Life Raising Three Girls with Autism.” The next day will include a full day of discussions on topics such as cyber safety, healthy dating and how to get children registered for first responders.
“Being mothers of children with autism is as personal as it gets,” Ananthanarayanan said, encouraging others to attend the conference. “There are a lot of other mothers who want the same information we want.”
And, like her, she said there are mothers of sons who may be seeking similar information or group interaction so she’s thinking about starting a group for boys to share their experiences, but she said, “Now we need the dads to get together.”
But first things first: “Embracing potential” as the Blue Roses Girls’ website says through “Community, Friendship, Support, Creativity, Celebration.”
For more information, visit www.bluerosesgirls.com and www.crimsoncenter.com