When Chloe Maxwell and Mat Rogers welcomed their son Max in 2006, like all new parents, they were convinced he was a perfect baby. “He was easy – he would go to anyone and sleep through everything. My friends kept praising me, saying I had done such a good job with him – I felt so blessed.” Chloe writes in her book Living with Max. “I just assumed he was by nature a great baby – I don’t think he ever really cried ... I look back now and wonder if these were all early signs that there was something different with Max.”
It has taken Chloe and Mat several years to feel comfortable enough to publicly discuss Max, and even recently during publicity events related to the release of the book Chloe has at times become quite emotional. But during our phone interview Chloe says this is because she feels her ability as a mother is under the spotlight, and it is incredibly important for her to be acknowledged as a good mum.
This is because Chloe has devoted many years to being a mum, even before Max was born, as the stepmother to Mat’s two older children Jack and Skyla from Mat’s previous relationship, and she always saw them as the first children in what she hoped would be a big family. The births of Max and daughter Phoenix, only 15 months later, completed the family unit.
It was apparent to Mat from early on that Max wasn’t communicating and interacting with people as he should be, and he continually voiced his concerns to Chloe. However in having two babies close together, moving to the Gold Coast for Mat to begin playing for the Gold Coast Titans in 2007, having a house full of children every few weeks when Jack and Skyla came to visit, in addition to planning their wedding in 2008, it took a while for Chloe to even notice that Max was not progressing as he should be. “Mat had seen Jack and Skyla as babies and had a better idea of what was typical development but Max was my first baby and I had no basis for comparison, and with Mat training long hours most days I was often by myself,” Chloe explains over the phone.
But Chloe encountered some difficult situations with Max after he turned 12 months old where he became hysterical during a trip to the supermarket and on a flight to Melbourne. Furthermore as Phoenix approached her first birthday and began to surpass Max in her development, it became more obvious that there was a problem, but Chloe’s initial naivety had shifted into denial.
In hindsight, Chloe believes her denial was the result of a fear that any problems Max had were a reflection on her as a mother that would leave her open to criticism, particularly from family members who had started to notice that something was wrong with Max. Consequently Chloe began to cover for Max by trying to hide some of his stranger habits during the family Christmas celebration in 2008. “If anyone directed any questions at him I would answer for him every time. I tried to stick him in front of a DVD as much as possible so his strangeness wouldn’t be as noticeable,” Chloe writes.
However during the holiday, Chloe’s father finally spoke up to say that he believed Max was autistic and when Mat agreed with him, Chloe realised the extent of her denial. But even after researching the autism spectrum and realising how many of the behavioural traits could be attributed to Max, Chloe struggled to accept the situation, wanting to believe that Max’s issues might be due to hearing problems, or that his condition could improve with dietary changes. “It’s hard to convey even a part of the pain of finding out that your son, your first born, the angel you had nursed for those many months and watched grow, is never going to be the same as other kids,” Chloe says in the book. “I used to daydream about him accomplishing great things in sport like his Dad, going to school, getting married – all the usual things. My dreams were short lived.”
But it was upon receiving the official diagnosis that Max was in fact autistic that Chloe finally took action and sought the crucial early intervention she is convinced has the greatest potential to help autistic children before they reach school age. In fact was the day that Max was enrolled to start therapy at a childcare facility called Little Souls Taking Big Steps that Chloe began to feel encouraged that Max could regain the identity that she had glimpsed when he was an infant. “I remember when Maxi used to engage with me and look me in the eye,” she says in the book. “We were going into battle to drag Max out of that distant world into which he had withdrawn.”
Throughout Max’s therapy, everyone in the family still struggled with erratic outbursts from Max, that were usually related to changes in his routine or unfamiliar situations that he found overwhelming, including his early days at Little Steps, Big Souls when he would become violent when Chloe dropped him off in the mornings. An incident where Max relieved himself in a public play area at a shopping centre, unknowingly urinating on other children playing around him, was one of several incidents where Chloe found herself apologising to angry and judgemental parents, until Chloe told them Max was autistic. “Many people act differently once they understand,” Chloe says emphatically over the phone. “There are many children with ASD who are excluded from opportunities to socialise with other children for this reason. I know Max was able to progress because he has three siblings who are protective of him and helped to reinforce everything he learnt in therapy.”
Chloe’s confidence in the importance of early intervention for autism is the basis for fundraising through the charity she and Mat founded in 2009 - ASD for Kids. The money is given directly to parents of autistic children to receive the one-on-one intensive treatment that Max received but which is incredibly expensive and not completely covered by government allowances. Chloe realises that she is one of the lucky ones to be able to afford the therapy that has benefited Max so immensely. Because even though Max still suffers from occasional setbacks, the family has been able to celebrate several major milestones – when he completed his toilet training, the day he repeated “I love you” back to Chloe for the very first time and attending primary school after three years of therapy.
Today Chloe says her outlook on Max’s future is completely different to the one she had when she was told he was autistic. “I think he will be able to do all the things I thought he may never be able to do and certain triggers don’t affect him anymore. He is able to better cope with things and his early intervention has helped him to grow out of a lot of his old behavioural patterns,” she says proudly down the phone.
She now considers her struggles with Max to be only one part of the experience of caring for the entire family. “Being a mother for so long has prepared me for the challenges at every stage of raising children – from babies to the teen years, which Jack and Skyla are in now. For a long time it was all about Max but I feel that the rest of the family receives more of my time and attention. I’ll always keep trying to be the best mum I can be.”
'Living with Max' is published by Harpercollins Australia and is available from all good bookstores.
I think he will be able to do all the things I thought he may never be able to do and certain triggers don’t affect him anymore.