Her life inside the whirlwind

"My life is cyclonic" ... Mandy Licciardello.
"My life is cyclonic" ... Mandy Licciardello. Photo: Anthony Johnson

Quiet moments are few for this mother in her 'cyclonic' life with four sons on the Asperger spectrum.

As Mandy Licciardello tries to stop her eldest son, Joseph, from pouring a bucket of water over our photographer, she trips on one of the several bikes and scooters strewn across the patio and falls heavily. Embarrassed but unhurt, she picks herself up, rolls her eyes and regains her composure.

If ever there is a hint of silence on Licciardello's spacious semi-rural property at Leppington in Sydney's south-west, she only has to blink before chaos is restored. There is no calm before the storm for the 40-year-old mother of six-year-old autistic triplets - Anthony, Michael and Timothy - and seven-year-old Joseph, who has Asperger syndrome.

''My life is cyclonic,'' she sighs, reclining into a faded green-and-white swing chair next to a large straw beach umbrella, a symbol of where she might rather be. ''But I can either swim or drown. And I'm not going to drown.''

Licciardello refuses to be consumed by the pandemonium. She has an uncanny ability to disconnect from the ''silliness'', she says, yet maintain some control over the situation. Some control.

As long as I've got someone to talk to each day, I'm OK. I'm in two support groups for special-needs children and that gives me a chance to talk to other parents.

''Before I had kids I worked in the city as a PA,'' she says. ''I used to do all the stationery ordering, typing, phone calls and so forth. When I got pregnant I thought, 'How hard can it be?' because I already had people relying on me in my job.''

The answer, she was to find out, was, ''Much harder.''

The identical triplets have James Dean-style looks, according to their mother, with brown hair, matching eyes and dashing smiles. They also have big voices, which are often in unison, as if trying to outdo each other. Fire-haired Joseph is the ringleader in their games, which involve screaming contests, couches being shoved, chairs being toppled and sticks and metal surfaces becoming makeshift drum kits. It seems out of control but there is a predictability structured around a clear brotherly bond. The boys are all in it together.

''It all started when Joseph decided as a baby that he would only eat one type of baby food,'' Licciardello says. ''No matter what we did, he refused.


''And with the triplets, when they were about three or four we noticed they weren't developing in the same way as other children. Other kids at that age were co-operating more, they were colouring in … But for us, none of that happened.''

She interrupts her story to tell one of the boys to put down a branch he's charging around with.

''That's dangerous!'' she yells. ''You can hurt someone.'' The response is ear-splitting hysteria. Licciardello throws the stick back into the garden and whispers, ''He'll go and get it now.'' He does.

''In the car park at school, people would chat to each other,'' she continues. ''But for us it was different. The kids just could not wait. They would scream and yell and we just had to leave. Everything for them needed to be immediate and to a plan. They would also fight severely, which was hard to deal with.''

There were problems with toilet training and Licciardello noticed unusual behaviour around food and sleep. Medical tests confirmed their conditions. Instead of despairing, Licciardello says she was relieved she finally had an explanation.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is an information-processing disorder. Autism Spectrum Australia defines it as lifelong developmental disabilities characterised by marked difficulties in communication and social interaction, restricted and repetitive interests and behaviours, and sensory sensitivities. The word ''spectrum'' is used because the range and severity of difficulties can vary widely.

Asperger syndrome is part of the ''spectrum''. Its distinctiveness is that individuals with Asperger do not have a significant delay in early language acquisition and there is no significant delay in cognitive abilities or self-help skills.

There is no known cause or cure for ASD, though research points towards genetic links and there is reason to believe early intervention, specialised education and structured support can help individuals progress.

''A lot of people would have burst into tears,'' Licciardello says of finding out about her sons' conditions. ''But I was relieved that I didn't have to keep guessing any more and could get help. The mystery was solved.''

There is no bitterness as she describes the intense rigidity of her life. But she is well aware that she needs to look after herself to be able to best care for her children.

''As long as I've got someone to talk to each day, I'm OK,'' she says. ''I'm in two support groups for special-needs children and that gives me a chance to talk to other parents.''

She receives home help on Mondays and Wednesdays, when she can ''have a quiet coffee, do the groceries, read a magazine''. She is also thankful for the support of her husband, Alf, and her ''amazing'' mother-in-law.

''I love to watch TV but I hardly get a chance,'' she says. ''Maybe I watch the news once or twice a week. There's always people needing you, always tearing you away. If they want a sandwich, they want it right now. There's no reasoning.''

Things became easier when the boys started school. The holidays demand Licciardello become ''an amateur event co-ordinator'' but during term the daytime gives her space to get things in order.

School is mostly smooth now, though there are challenges. Joseph eats lunch in the art room because he can't stand the smell of the other kids' food. At his most recent birthday party, which his entire class attended, he ran away when he was to blow out the candles because the sausage rolls were too close to the cake, acting on his heightened smell sensitivity to the point he couldn't cope.

''One of my friends who works with special-needs children asked why I put the cake near the other food,'' Licciardello says. ''I said, 'I didn't mean to but I'm running a party and I can't worry where the sausage rolls are.' I could understand that, for Joseph, it was a really big thing. But it was difficult because everyone was there.''

Joseph is starting to gain self-awareness. One day after school recently, he asked his mother why a classmate called him ''strange''. Licciardello was recommended a book by a specialist, which has helped her begin explaining ASD to her boys. She is studying a course called Managing Challenging Behaviour. She wants to continue learning so she can keep giving the kids the best chance of a good life.

''I don't worry about their future,'' she says. ''They're going to start dating one day and I hope that will help them improve their social skills … They'll be fine.''

At the top of Licciardello's wish-list when the boys leave home is to have a tidy house. ''And I want to read books. I've got all these books to read. And I want to get on the computer. I never get to use the internet. I don't even know what Facebook is.''

She reclines into the faded green-and-white swing chair and smiles as she looks up at the straw cascading from the large beach umbrella nearby. ''Isn't it great? Whenever I look at it, I feel like I am on a holiday somewhere incredibly exotic.''

Is your child on the Autism spectrum or do you know someone who is? Talk to other parents dealing with the same challenges on the Essential Kids Forums.