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Your Health: How The People saved our daughter's life; Gill Scowcroft, 41, was baffled by her daughter Rachel's odd behaviour - until a People feature solved the mystery by revealing Rachel's autism.

Byline: LORNA FRAME

My two-year-old was a funny little thing. I watched her eye up the brightly-coloured, chunky wooden beads in front of her.

`Go on, Rachel, love, put the beads on the thread,' I encouraged. She looked at me in confusion, then grabbed the beads, her hands working so quickly they were almost a blur. Finally she sat back, satisfied.

But the beads weren't threaded together. She'd sorted them into their colours and lined them up with military precision. It wasn't what most kids did.

My other daughter, Jade, who was six by then, hadn't been like that. But Rachel wasn't like most kids. She had obsessions.

She loved the green man at pelican crossings, but was terrified of the red man. For 18 months she refused to go out without her red baseball cap, and wouldn't wear clothes with buttons. `Mummy, buttons are dangerous,' she said.

Rachel was a bright child, but obsessively neat and tidy. She sorted sweets into colours and lined them up, but wouldn't eat them.

In fact she hated food. From the time I weaned her at nine months old, she'd throw a tantrum the second the food went into her mouth. Yet she loved sucking on wood, stones, foil and other weird stuff.

My husband David and I were at the end of our tether. Things got so bad that a health visitor came round every fortnight to check on her progress. `She's just a fussy child,' we were told.

But as Rachel got older she became violent, throwing food at us, putting it on her head or screaming. The only thing she ate was Cadbury's Chocolate Buttons. `She can't survive like this,' David said, but amazingly she thrived.

In February 1997, two months before Rachel's third birthday, David beckoned me. `Come and hear this!' he grinned. `...98, 97, 96...' recited Rachel. We stood in amazement as she counted backwards from 100.

Just after turning three, Rachel knew the alphabet and could tell the time by the 24-hour clock. In some ways she was coming on in leaps and bounds. But why did she have difficulty doing tasks other kids her age did easily...?

Then, on May 24, 1998, my mate Kay Heywood, 41, arrived at my home in Bolton.

I'd been looking forward to a chat, but could immediately tell something was wrong. `Read this, Gill,' she said, tears in her eyes.

She handed me a page torn from The People newspaper. The headline read: `Sad Chocolate Drop Kid Eats Only 15 Bags Of Buttons A Day'.

The story told how Kieran Lister, aged four, had a form of autism that meant he'd only eat chocolate buttons. He sounded exactly like Rachel. Which meant...

I fell into Kay's arms, sobbing. I'd guessed something was wrong, but the truth was devastating. I read and re-read The People article, and became more convinced than ever - Rachel was autistic.

Could she go to a mainstream school? Would she be able to marry and have children? Would she live a happy and healthy life? I didn't know any answers, but I feared the worst.

I showed David the paper. `There's nothing wrong with my daughter,' he insisted. `It's just the terrible twos.' I kept crying while David refused to believe it was true - but I knew our beautiful daughter was sick.

A week after reading the article I saw my GP, who agreed to refer Rachel to a psychiatrist. Two months later, in July 1998, we went to the Royal Bolton Hospital. After a long interview with David and I, and seeing Rachel playing, the psychiatrist had a diagnosis.

`Your daughter has a form of autism, which includes sensory integration dysfunction,' she said.

`Rachel hates the texture of lots of things, which is why she'll only eat chocolate and is scared of buttons. She'll be like this until she's at least 16. She'll always be highly intelligent, but will struggle with everyday tasks.'

`What life will she have?' I asked.

`It's hard to tell at this stage,' the psychiatrist replied. `But she'll needs lots of love and patience.'

Despite my grief, life with Rachel got easier as we finally knew what was wrong. David accepted her illness and went part-time at his window- cleaning job to work with the Bolton Autism Action Group - he's now chairman. He also co-ordinates a befriending scheme with the National Autistic Society. I re-trained and now teach non-verbal autistic children at Ladywood School, in Bolton, a special needs school.

Rachel is a beautiful, happy child, although her life is far from ordinary. Since Rachel was five, her daily diet comprises two chocolate digestives and six pieces of cooking chocolate for breakfast, followed by a packet of Wotsits, three packets of Milky Way Magic Stars and two snack-size packets of chocolate fingers for lunch.

At dinner time she has 10 squares of Rice Krispies with melted Belgian cooking chocolate. We also give her vitamin drops in a glass of milk every evening. If people ask about her diet, she just shrugs. `I like chocolate - all other foods are poisonous,' she says.

Doctors say the calorie content of her diet isn't too high. She's nine, doing the schoolwork of an 11-year-old, but has the emotional age of a five-year-old. She goes to Roscow Fold, a mainstream school, where she copes thanks to a qualified nursery nurse who sits with her in class, keeping her calm and happy. Some of Rachel's friends are aware she's different, but when she's with other children her behaviour is less autistic than at home. She's more academically mature than most of her classmates - she spends most of her spare time on the computer, and astounds us with her knowledge.

But she gets upset if everything isn't in perfect order - like if one of her toys is moved. She also has obsessions. At the moment she has to call her Barbie doll a different name every day, so the house is full of baby-name books.

Jade is wonderful with Rachel and has learned how to calm her if she's upset. It's not certain, but Rachel's symptoms will probably lessen as she gets older. There's no reason why she can't go on to marry, have children and get a good job.

When I told Rachel I cried after discovering she was autistic, she said: `Mummy, do people with autism die before other people?'

`No, darling,' I answered. `Well, why did you cry then?' she said, puzzled.

And she's right. We don't know what Rachel's future holds, but we adore our beautiful, unique daughter."

Autism: the facts

Autism is estimated to affect the daily lives of more than 500,000 families throughout the UK.

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects the way a person communicates and relates to people around them.

Children and adults with autism have difficulties with everyday social interaction.

Their ability to develop friendships is generally limited as is their capacity to understand other people's emotional expression.

For help or advice, visit the National Autistic Society at www.nas.org.uk or call 0845 070 4004 (Monday to Friday, 10am - 4pm).

CAPTION(S):

CHOCS AWAY: All other foods are poisonous, says Rachel; IN THE PINK: Rachel with her mum, dad and sister; THE PEOPLE: At last...the truth
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:Jan 9, 2005
Words:1212
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