Sarah Foster talks to MARION SAUVEBOIS about what it’s like to be the mother of an autistic child — and tells of her journey from diagnosis to understanding, and the extraordinary progress four-year-old Gabriella has made

"SHE is a little hurricane - she's unstoppable," warns Sarah Foster with a lenient smile, leading the way into the living room.

On cue, four-year-old Gabriella leaps towards the door, cupping a toy hamster, chatting at a mile a minute. She bounces up and down impatiently as her mother winds up the plastic rodent. No sooner have its little legs kicked in that she grabs the furry figurine and begins nattering on excitedly, bombarding her mother with a strafe of questions, considering the answers out loud before firing her next round.

Never once showing signs of wearing down at her little munchkin's uninterrupted grilling, Sarah welcomes every new question with a smile, encouraging her to ask more.

After watching her autistic daughter locked up in silence for years, she never dared hope Gabriella would be able to communicate, let alone command the room with her quick wit.

"You would not believe it now but she was non-verbal until she was three and a half. Every time she manages to do something they said she wouldn't be able to, it's a big achievement," she smiles, keeping a close watch on Gabriella, who, noticing a lull in the conversation, proceeds to describe with surprising fluency the ins and outs of her latest toy, a lit-up miniature escalator. "She has come so far in her intellect. She's so inquisitive. If we go in a ride, she will ask how it works. She is my electric ray of sunshine."

Since her diagnosis in 2015, Gabriella has thrived and reached milestones most had near on given up on.

But it took years for Sarah to get support for her child and convince doctors something was amiss.

From birth Gabriella was never able to make eye contact, something she still struggles with now. For some time, her mother did her best to push her concerns out of her mind, but her child’s unusual behaviour and unpredictable outbursts grew impossible to ignore.

“There were a lot of things she didn't tolerate and she had a lot of characteristics that were very strong for an autistic child,” recalls the 29-year-old from Sanders Close. “But for a while you just think your child has her own quirks. Anytime I would try to go to the supermarket with her, in the trolley or walking, it just wasn't doable. It was almost like she had a panic attack. She was inconsolable. If I took her to a park she would hide underneath the slides covering her ears. She would panic if other children touched her. She would lash out at them physically. Because of that, I had to be her shadow, I couldn't leave her out of my sight," she says quietly. "It's not until she started going to school that she's become more accepting and been better in public places."

Unbeknown to Sarah, she had become a full-time carer, utterly consumed with predicting her daughter’s needs and wants; watching for clues and warning signs.

"That was the hardest thing to deal with, having a child who's trying to communicate with you but you have no means of understanding. She would get very frustrated very quickly," she sighs.

Things came to a head when Gabriella enrolled in nursery school and an assessment flagged up a severe developmental delay. At nearly three, she had the mental and motor skills of an 11-month- old. At last Sarah had the proof she needed to seek medical help.

Gabriella was swiftly diagnosed with autism and hypermobility, meaning her joints have an unusually large range of movement. As a result she has a rotated pelvis and internally rotated knees which leaves her in agonising pain and unable to walk long distances.

"It was a relief to know what it was," confides Sarah. "But at the same time going into that hospital room and being told was heart-breaking. I needed that diagnosis but I've come across multiple people who put off the diagnosis because they didn't want their child to be labelled for the rest of their life or bullied. The only thing I can say is that when it comes to your child you have to put them above and beyond anything else in this world and the diagnosis will get them the help they need to become an independent person."

Meanwhile Sarah signed up to a course run by the Autistic Society to get to grips with her daughter's struggles and "learn to enter Gabriella's world" using images and picture cards.

"It was fantastic to finally understand why she reacted like that, why she had meltdowns, why she didn't accept new foods. I didn’t think she might be hypersensitive to light, smell or touch. If you can see lights flickering or hear noise much louder in a supermarket, I can imagine it would be quite irritating. I know what her triggers are now."

But her daughter's inability to speak and express emotions continued to be a major stumbling block.

"When she started nursery, it hit me hard. Seeing parents pick up their children and ask, 'How was your day? What did you do?' and seeing them answer. When I picked her up she didn't say anything. When I put her to bed, I would say 'Mummy loves you' and she never said anything," she trails off. "As a parent it's very difficult. I knew she loved me but she just didn’t say it."

Sarah's unflagging efforts to get through to Gabriella eventually bore fruit. Steadily the little girl found her voice. When she finally answered back, snuggled up in her little bed, Sarah was overwhelmed. But her excitement was short-lived and she was forced to learn to manage her expectations.

"It was probably around Christmas 2015 that she said it back. But she didn’t that emotional understanding, she was copying. Now she says it and she definitely understands. It just took her a little longer to get there," she adds thoughtfully. "Sometimes you have to laugh about it because let's be honest if you don't you'll cry if you've had a very bad day.”

Choosing to enrol her in mainstream school was a bold but crucial move, Sarah explains.

"I wanted to see is she would sink or swim before going down the special school route. We had a few hiccups when she started. She has a key worker doing lunchtimes with her and she goes to social therapy twice a week. She is doing really well.”

Thanks to her mum's devotion and her school's support, Gabriella is now thriving and has surpassed anyone's expectations. Her reading is so advanced she is far ahead of most of her classmates. But her hypermobility remains a concerning issue and she may need surgery in the coming years.

As calm and unflappable as Sarah seems, constantly anticipating Gabriella's needs and any possible triggers has taken its toll. Though many may resent facing such a heavy burden of responsibility each day, the single mother relishes every moment spent with her unique daughter.

"You don't see it as being a carer, you see it as being a mum. I'm patient with her, a lot of people have said, but I don't think autism is something that can be disciplined out of a child. I love my daughter exactly how she is, no matter how energetic she is sometimes. She is more like my best friend. We do absolutely everything together. I hope that by secondary school she will be competent and confident enough in her own coping mechanisms. But I will always be there for her."