By Rebecca Drew
THIS MUM started sharing her life living with her nonverbal autistic teenage son on social media to show the lighter side of autism to provide hope to other families after being fed up of seeing only bleak portrayals of it in the media – and says that she IS NOT TO BE PITIED BUT ENVIED.
YouTuber and mum-of-two, Geege Dudley (51) from Athens, Georgia, USA, was met with nothing but doom and gloom when her son, Pootie (16) was diagnosed with severe autism at just one-and-a-half-years-old within five-minutes of seeing a doctor for an assessment.
With not much known about autism at the time, Geege would drop everything whenever a show came on television about living with the condition but was left feeling disheartened as families were often portrayed as being miserable and exhausted. But Geege was determined that her family would not have the same destiny, so she stopped comparing Pootie to other children his age and focussed on what joy autism brings to their lives instead of what some may think it takes away.
Pootie is at the most severe end of the autism spectrum and is non-verbal but he goes to school where he receives speech, occupational and behavioural therapy to help him reach his goals and to be able to live his life to the fullest.
For Geege, the most important thing was to make sure that Pootie has the most normal life possible so she takes him out with her to the shops, to grab tacos and to have his hair cut, and when he isn’t in therapy, she just focusses on being his mum instead of constantly picking him up on his actions.
Fashion, dignity and image is important to Geege for her son, and so she has made it her priority to make sure that her son wears stylish clothes and cologne that makes him look and feel good, instead of easy-to-wear tracksuits that many children with special needs wear. This has boosted Pootie’s self-esteem as he is fussed over wherever he goes.
Geege says that Pootie has enriched her life beyond belief and that she is to be envied not pitied by others and feels blessed to be his mum. She shares their life on Instagram and on YouTube with their channel, Planet Poot, to show the lighter side of autism, with an unexpectedly hilarious, relatable twist.
“When he was young, the reason we knew he had autism so early was because he was so severe so when I was looking through a list of all the hallmarks of autism there are like 20 different things on a list that if your child ticks about half of them, they most likely have autism, well I checked 19,” said Geege.
“When we took him to a doctor to be evaluated, it was supposed to be a full day’s evaluation. We had gone to another state and when we got there, within five minutes the doctor who was making the diagnosis told us that he felt so bad because we had come so far, and paid all this money for a full day’s evaluation and he could tell us that he unequivocally had autism within the first five minutes of observing him.
“He was one and a half, most children that age are not getting diagnosed but he was so severe. and if you’ve got a very severe baby, that’s a strong indicator of things to come.
“Within about a year of him being diagnosed, I started seeing things on TV about it and I would watch all of it. It was always pitiful, it was always like parents who were beat up, exhausted, who were like, ‘oh we don’t have any quality of life’, and, ‘this is too hard’, and, ‘all we do is go to therapy and to the doctors’ – and all of that is true, but I really do believe in life that you have to be more positive than that if you want a good outcome.
“You control your destiny no matter what is going on with your life. I just vowed that I would not be like that. He’s now 16 and has never talked and still struggles so much cognitively, but I’ve realised that it doesn’t matter as long as he’s happy.
“When you stop comparing him to other kids his age who are typical, you start to see that he’s such a blessing and brings so much to the table that no one else ever could, my life is so much happier and so much more full now that I have him.
“Every single day, I feel blessed that I wake up and get to be his mum. I used to worry about what I was going to do when he is older, I can’t imagine him living with me forever. Now I’m so glad that he’s going to be living with me forever. He’s just like a big teddy bear. I’d be devastated if he left.
“He is at the most severe end of the spectrum, so he has a one-on-one schoolteacher. He works on therapy goals all day such as, communicating with a hybrid system (Picture exchange, a few signs, and gestures), working on self-help skills for independence (toileting, using utensils, dressing and grooming) and working on regulating his sensory system by having a sensory room both at home and school for swinging and jumping.
“He swims after school with the ESP (extra special people) “Piranhas” swim team, as well as going to ESP day camp all summer.
“I decided in the beginning that I was going to take him with me everywhere that I could because I wanted him to have a normal life, I didn’t want him to be sheltered because it’s too hard. I put my head down and made myself do it.
“He knows he’s loved and adored, and I think that gives him so much self-esteem. And it links in with the whole fashion thing. He could look bad and could be like a lot of special needs kids who have yucky teeth because it’s hard to clean them a lot of the time. But I struggle through it. It’s important to me that he has dignity.
“I see a lot of well-dressed mums who walk in with their kid who is in some horrible outfit. Sweat clothes that match, that pull up and pull on. It’s easy and it’s cheap because these kids may not care about what they are wearing. I was just like I don’t care, he is not going to go to school with sweat pants everyday just because it’s easier.
“It’s important to me because I think it shows that we are so proud of him and he feels so much positive attention and energy from people and I seriously think he thinks he’s famous because of the attention. He gets masses of attention and sticks his hands up for high fives to get people to back off like they’re the paparazzi hounding him.
“We’ve enjoyed the fact that he is so cute and we go overboard with all that. It just takes that bit of pride, he deserves that every bit as much as my daughter and he might not understand that ‘wow I’m in a 400 dollar cricket jacket’ but he gets that everyone around him thinks he looks great and he loves that.”
Since sharing her family’s life on Instagram and YouTube, Geege has been inundated with other families who are living with autism who are thankful to her for showing autism in a positive light.
In 2015, Geege and her family filmed a pilot for a major US TV network about life with autism but it was dropped as autism was hard to sell. She didn’t let that stop her and has launched the world’s first autism comedy, Planet Poot, on YouTube. With the channel, Geege is showing other families that they are not alone and that they can still find joy in life regardless of disability.
She is also a contributing writer for Autism Speaks and has written a book which she is currently seeking representation for, about her life that has been made better by adversity including disability, breast cancer, single motherhood, abandonment, and more.
“I know that Pootie will never be a journalist, a doctor, a lawyer, an author, or work for the President of the United States like his parents and grandparents have done. He has been put on this earth for a far greater cause. He has taught us what pure love is,” said Geege.
“A perfect example happened a year ago, when my 16-year-old niece passed away in a horrific accident. My first instinct was to get Pootie out of the house, as I knew loads of people would be coming over, and I thought that he would become agitated. The babysitter came to pick him up, but we soon realised that he was the most important person to comfort a house full of family and teenagers who were in acute pain.
“He laid down with my sister, who had just lost her child, and with my niece, who had just lost her sister, and rubbed their backs, while kissing the tops of their heads until they fell asleep.
“This is a kid who never sits still. He did this for hours. He made his rounds and comforted everyone like a big teddy bear. Even being severely mentally disabled, this lovely child understood our pain and cared for us.
“I’m constantly getting messages daily from people who feel like no one understands their children with autism, and they thank me for showing the bright side of autism.
“A lot of these kids just feel like they are being a burden to society because they are constantly being told ‘no’. They’re just living life the way their brains are wired, but so what? Everyone’s lives do not have to follow the same, predictable script.
“The thing that makes me feel good is when the parents say, ‘my kid is severe and nonverbal or can maybe only say a few words and I worry about the future’ and comment that they’re happier for having seen a family out there who absolutely loves life – even if the child is lower functioning.”
Finally, Geege shared her words of advice to other families living with autism.
“My message of hope is that life is what you make it. You can tell yourself that life sucks and that it’s hard and different from your friends who have ‘typical children’. Or you can choose to be happy and focus on what autism brings to your life instead what you might think that it takes away,” said Geege.
“Focussing on what Pootie brings to the table is key. We do not compare him to typical children. Why bother? He’s not typical and that’s what makes him so amazing.
“His unique spin on life is refreshing and has taught us all what is important in life. We see life through a different lens. It’s not normal, but it’s lovely and I see us as part of the privileged few.
“We are not to be pitied; we are to be envied. It breaks my heart that most people never understand this kind of love. You are way ahead of the game if you have a good mindset because your child will feel your positive energy and thrive.
“I get how some people aren’t as positive and I understand that. It can be very tough. I just think there needs to be stronger messages of happiness and gratefulness of what autism brings.”
For more information see www.youtube.com/c/PlanetPoot