I met Sara through the Bristol Autism Network, Sara is mum to the lovely Charlie Matthews. Charlie is 15 and she is already a very successful model, designer, photographer, singer and actress. Charlie started off with beauty pageants and has since modelled on runways at Fashion Weeks in New York and Paris.
At just 7 years old Charlie was struggling with anxiety so much she attempted to take her own life. At age 8 Charlie was diagnosed as autistic. Charlie also has Hypermobility Syndrome, juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis and Epilepsy.
Charlie is an inspirational young lady, she has designed a clothing line called ‘Missing Pieces’ and the set of clothes pictured below was designed to raise awareness for Bullies Out the charity she is young ambassador for.
Some more of Charlie’s designs on the runway below.
Charlie is very talented and has achieved so much at a young age, you can find out more about here on her official website www.charliematthews.net
I wanted to interview Sara because as a mum to a young autistic child, I want to hear from other mums who have been in my shoes. For me the best support I have found has been other parents who understand what it is like parenting an autistic child. With this in mind I wanted to interview Sara to find out about her journey with Charlie from her young childhood to her success. I am very grateful that she agreed, Sara and Charlie have been kind enough to share their story with us in my first inspirational interview:
Interview with Sara Matthews
Sara at what age did you notice or feel that something was different about Charlie and how did you feel about this?
I think I felt Charlie was different from about 1 years old. I didn’t have any concerns at this stage but just knew that she seemed exceptionally intelligent. She was a very serious child and so clever she was like a little professor and talked like a mini adult. I always thought she was quirky because of this intelligence- she even read at 3 years old picking it up so easily. She never liked loud noises, touching certain things and everything had to be done in an exact way or put in a specific place or it would really upset her.
At about four years old though I began to be aware of her difficulties with social skills. Her peers were growing up, maturing and learning these skills and she seemed unable to move forward. She didn’t play like other children just lined up her toys or took them all out of the boxes and then put them all back in. She then started to become anxious in social situations not wanting to join in and getting really distressed. Over the years things just got harder particularly at school it was and still is an environment that she finds the most difficult. I think by the time she was 7 and she began to hurt herself I just knew that something was wrong. She would tell me she heard voices that said awful things to her, and it all came to a head when she tried to take her own life. I thought it was a mental health problem and was scared for her future I naively had never thought that children could suffer in this way and didn’t know how we could help her.
I pushed for a referral to CAMHS.
Can you tell us about what led to Charlie’s autism diagnosis and did it change things for you and your family?
Charlie was seen by CAMHS and they called me back in alone a couple of days later. They believed there was a possibility that she had Asperger’s Syndrome. I was quite shocked I had never thought of anything like an ASC. They wanted to start testing Charlie, so she undertook various tests over the summer period. I researched Asperger’s Syndrome and throughout the summer I would look at her one minute and think no this isn’t it and then the next day I would think oh my goodness yes. The day of her ADOS testing she was really good and participated well it was a definitely a good day for Charlie so I thought they wouldn’t have picked anything up. We went back for the results though and yes Charlie did have Asperger’s Syndrome and I think by then I had already come to the conclusion myself.
Charlie was relieved she was glad to have an answer to why she felt so different. We were glad too that we could start to try and help her. It did change things as we had to learn how to parent her in a totally different way and I think as she gets older, we are still always learning and evolving as parents. You face many challenges as they grow, and we are entering the transition phase from school and trying to plan that next.
We all know parenting isn’t easy and parenting a child on the autistic spectrum certainly comes with its own challenges. Charlie has spoken about a difficult time growing up with anxiety and not fitting in. As her mum how did you cope with the low points?
The low points have been truly heart-breaking for me as a mum. Charlie does suffer with crippling anxiety and there are times when I have felt overwhelmed. I think the way in which I cope is to try and take each day, not thinking too far in the future.
For example, Charlie really struggled with GCSE mock exams this year. She is so intelligent but just can’t sit an exam she becomes so ill even physically being sick. I just focus on getting her to school that day and trying to help her feel happy. In the end I took her out of the exams because at this point in her life she can’t do it and it was making her so unhappy. I know many people will think but what will happen in the future, but I have learned that whether she sits an exam or not she is still the same intelligent, talented individual who will succeed without that piece of paper. So, I just take each day, each week and I just try and remember that sometimes paths just suddenly veer off in a totally different direction to which you thought they were going to go, and you just need to breathe and go with it.
Below is some of Charlie’s amazing photography work for her GCSE that she took a year early
Where do you turn for support and what do you do to de-stress?
My mum is a huge support to me and my husband. She has tried so hard to understand Charlie and her needs and as a lady in her 70s she has had to change quite a few of her beliefs/ways. I think talking to someone about my concerns and tough days is how I de-stress. I always have always enjoyed art being a keen artist but that stopped when I had Charlie however over the last two years, I have used it as a brilliant way to de-stress for both of us.
You must be incredibly proud of Charlie’s modelling success. How did you feel when Charlie first wanted to enter a beauty pageant and how do you feel now?
I will never forget the day Charlie said she wanted to enter a beauty pageant I thought it was an impossible thing for her to do but Charlie has always proved that nothing is impossible. At that point she didn’t look people in the eye so I had no idea how she would stand on a stage. The first pageant she ever entered she stood on that stage and blew me away it was like she came alive. I am so glad that she found this start that led to modelling, designing her own clothes and the confidence to make her feel she could do anything.
Below: Charlie in Miami 2018 opening her own line of clothes on the runway and behind the scenes with all her models.
What advice would you give to parents of children on the autistic spectrum who feel they are struggling?
Try and find your child’s passion and whatever it may be then fully embrace it. You can use this to encourage them in other areas. Charlies obsessions/passions changed quite often but the one that always remained was her love of animals, so I used this. To get her out socially I took her to animal places, to read I used animal stories, to eat I cut food into animal shapes, to go to bed I turned her room into a jungle. No matter how strange it the passion may seem to us to them it’s so important.
Try and find what your child is talented at and really encourage this. I think they often feel so low because life is difficult for them so if you can find that thing they are good at then go for it. It will really help their confidence and self esteem to feel good at something.
Keep talking to your friends or family and if you don’t have supportive friends and family then seek out parent groups. Its good to let off steam and ask others for help and advice. Quite often another parent on a social group may have been through a similar problem or can point you in the right direction for help so never be afraid to ask.
A question for Charlie:
Charlie how do you feel about your mum’s support growing up?
I don’t know what I would’ve done without my mum’s help she is always there for me I actually think I wouldn’t be alive. I would’ve killed myself because at times I have felt like I just can’t keep fighting. She has always helped me to remember what I’m good at rather than what I struggle with and this makes a difference when my confidence is low. I go to a school where I see other children who don’t have the right support from their parents, and they end up in trouble and then in care it’s really sad you almost know they are not going to have a chance in life.
I am really lucky to have the parents that I have they have made so many opportunities possible and I’m so grateful. I know at times life is not easy with me, but they understand that I don’t mean to be challenging I just find this world a confusing place!
Thank you Sara and Charlie for being so open and honest about your autism journey. I am so pleased that you have shared it with us.
If you have an inspirational autism story then get in touch I would love to hear from you.