Cristi Mallory is a mother much like many of you. She laughs, she cries, she hopes, and she dreams for the futures of her two beautiful daughters. Christi Mallory is also a mother very different from most of you because she has not one, but two, daughters who are autistic. She is very open about her two absolutely beautiful daughters, and she agreed to sit down with me and start at the beginning, where he story begins in the year 2000 with the birth of her daughter, Christian.
By Cristi’s own admission it was a very difficult birth, and that is putting it very, very mildly. It was actually what I would consider an off-the-chart kind of birth.
“Christian is very much a miracle baby. I was very young and naïve, and I chose a doctor that was very young. That was a big part of why I selected her for my doctor. She was young, and I liked her.”
Unfortunately, the young doctor had a ski trip planned about the time Christian was due so she decided to induce a few days early so that she could still keep her ski plans, not really all that uncommon at all.
“I had had a difficult pregnancy with morning sickness, high blood pressure off and on, and I was just ready to be done with it. Of course, I was ready to meet my daughter, and we were very excited for me to be induced. We went in, induced, and my contractions were immediately off of the screen. I dilated to a 6, and they gave me the epidural, which shut off my contractions.”
After several more hours, the baby’s heart rate began to drop, and the doctor decided that it was time for a C-section.
“We had told the doctor all along that she would be born transitional. Both my mom and I had been born transitional but, of course, doctors never listen. We were right. They got in to do the C-section, and she was stuck in the transitional position, and they could not get her out.”
Having been in the delivery room when my own daughter gave birth, I can tell you that what happened next is every mom’s nightmare as she watches her own baby girl suffer through the birthing process. Baby Christian’s heart rate plummeted as Cristi’s rose dangerously.
“They were screaming that they were losing both of us, with even an ungloved nurse rushing in to help. They ended up giving me eight epidurals, but none of them worked. I felt every cut, every pull. I was completely delirious from the pain.”
With the help of the ungloved nurse the transitionally positioned baby was finally brought into the world just in time for her mommy to lose consciousness. It was ten days before Cristi Mallory was well enough to leave the hospital. Two days later she was back for repair on her incision, but then things began to look up for the little family.
“When Christian was about 3-4 months old, she started having chronic ear infections, and we could not get a referral to an ENT that we needed for our insurance. In fact, one pediatrician told us that we were in Texas, that she was going to be sick, and we needed to learn to deal with it.”
As crazy as it sounds, Christian was three before she was referred to an ENT who put tubes in the tiny ears that had already permanently lost 25 % of their hearing capacity by then. She had not begun talking at the time.
“That was when she started talking. Until then she had about a fifteen word vocabulary, and she was very repetitive with those words…like Mama, Mama, Mama, never single words.”
I stopped Cristi here to ask if she suspected anything at this point but, of course, she did not. They were young and besides, who thinks about Autism?
“At the time, we thought it was just a quirk, not a sign of Autism. Christian also had trouble walking. She would walk, and her calf muscles would tighten, and she would drop to her knees for awhile before getting up to walk again. The doctor sent us to a physical therapist; we were already seeing a speech therapist,” Cristi explained to me.
Apparently, everything started happening very quickly right after Christian turned three and had the tubes put in her ears.
“We were working with speech therapist, a physical therapist, and then we added an occupational therapist. We still didn’t know she was autistic, and no one had mentioned it to us. We just knew that she had a lot of texture issues and sensory issues. A lot of things she just would not touch.”
It was the occupational therapist who first mentioned the A word to Christian’s parents, and Cristi had no idea what he was talking about.
“I had never even heard that word before. My mother jumped on the Internet, and we began studying. We went to the child study center, and the people at Cook actually thought it was her hearing causing the issues so we continued with the therapies.
“When Christian was close to four, we started a program called ECI (early childhood intervention). They have a school program where children with developmental issues can start school at the age of three, and she would go two hours a day, three days a week. When she wasn’t at school she was in three therapies a day.”
And then when Christian was in the first grade, Cristi delivered Crista, her second baby girl.
“I was excited that I was pregnant, but I was scared to death. It was a scheduled C-section with a spinal, not an epidural, and it was an awesome delivery.”
And then when she was eight months old, baby Crista started rocking back and forth…but before that…
“When Crista was 2 ½ weeks old, we were on our way to a pageant where Christian was reigning. On the way there, Crista was sleeping in her car seat, and I noticed her body jerking and tensing. I was afraid she was having seizures, and I kept my eye on her. On the way home, she began it again so I called the pediatrician who told us to go straight to Cook.
“We ended up being there for four days while they put her through testing, including a spinal tap, but they could not find why she was having the seizures.”
Apparently, it was a nothing but a mild fever that caused Crista’s seizures that always happened in her sleep. She began medication at that time, and she has just recently been able to discontinue the medication.
“And then at eight months, we began noticing the other signs of Autism. She could not swallow her formula properly, and she could not eat baby foods with more than one texture. At this point we suspected, but even Christian had not been diagnosed because remember that Cook had said it was her hearing causing the problem even though our occupational therapist had told us it was probably Autism.”
At this point the Mallorys had a six year old and an eight month old working with an occupational therapist. By the time Crista should have been talking, the only thing she was saying was Mamamamamamama or Gramamamamama, just like sister had done so once they started noticing that, she started with the speech therapist.
And then Crista started walking…just like Christian had done. By the time she was 1 ½, Crista was seeing all three therapists. Every thing Christian had done, Crista was doing worse.
“She was extremely intelligent, that was very obvious. Autistic children just think differently than we do, and Crista could think of smarter ways to do things, even when she was a baby.”
So how has this mom who is now a single parent coped?
“There have been times when it has been very, very hard as we worked through the meltdowns and all the things that come with Autism. There have been times when Crista at two would walk up to the concrete arches in our entryway and bang her head against them.
“You could pull her away, and she would scream at the top of her lungs. Her neurologist told us that once she is in that mode, she does not see or hear us. Crista is farther down on the autistic spectrum than Christian is.
“There have been major improvements though. I think mostly from the therapy sessions and the fact that my mom and I have stayed home with her. She had three therapy sessions a day, always for five days and sometimes on the weekends as well.
“That was my job. We’d start at 8:00 every morning with therapy. We’d take a break for lunch and then go back to work until 3:00. Sometimes there were two therapists there at a time. Of course, I was always working, whether they were there or not. Autistic kids are all about the schedule.”
Crista started school early just like Christian did, but she kept seeing all three therapists at school. She also was in the special needs program through pre-K. In kindergarten, she worked for half a day in special needs classes and half a day in mainstream classes. Today she still sees a speech therapist in school twice per week, but she is in all mainstream classes.
“Luckily the teacher we have this year also has experience in special Ed. That has really helped Crista.”
Both girls were diagnosed with Autism at the same time. Crista was 4 and Christian was 9, but really life didn’t change much for Cristi.
“Deep down we had always known, and hearing it was almost a relief, just to know what we were dealing with: Asperger’s Syndrome, a type of Autism, and Christian was also diagnosed with a mild case of Tourette Syndrome.”
And then, I wanted to know about the pageants. Why would someone with two autistic girls, extremely beautiful though they are, also join the pageant scene?
“It’s in our blood; it’s who we are. I was a pageant kid myself.”
So, it was just the way it was. Cristi had two gorgeous daughters, and she didn’t have to think about it. They were going to be pageant girls, BUT…they never did what Cristi calls the “glitz” pageants, and they positively are NOT Toddlers and Tiaras or Honey Boo Boos!
As it turned out, she could not have done anything that would have been better therapy for two autistic girls.
“It pushed them into a space where they were out of their comfort zone. It gave them a chance to be and do things that they might not have been able to do in a normal everyday setting. One of the main things about autistic kids is that they don’t do eye contact. My girls had to learn to do that because they are scored on eye contact. The interview process has been amazing for them as well. They have to go in and talk to people they have never met. This has been a wonderful chance for them.”
And then Christian spoke up. “When you are in an interview room, you have to stand in high heels, and you have to be there for eight minutes. It’s scary, and they ask you questions about your platform. Mine is Autism. I tell them about it and they ask me questions. I feel so relieved when it is over. I’ve actually seen some girls break down in tears.”
Christa likes the pageant scene for totally different reasons! “I like the Sweetheart Pageant because it has lots of pizza!”
Cristi explained to me that this is a pageant for special needs girls of all ages from 0 to 99.
“As children, the system of pageants that the girls competed in was community service based. No one competed without a required number of community service hours. Fake hair, fake teeth, etc. was not allowed. The theme was today’s girls building tomorrow’s leaders, and building girls who could become tomorrow’s leaders by being involved in making their communities better.
“Today, Christian is part of a mentoring program called the Lone Star Princess Program through the Miss Texas Pageant where she is allowed to be a part of the Miss Texas experience from the rehearsal to the production number until she is old enough to compete in the pageant herself.”
And it was at this point that Cristi, dry-eyed up until now, had to wipe away the tears.
“When Crista was a baby with seizures, we were told that there was a 90% chance that she would never walk or talk, and now she is singing and dancing…ON STAGE…
“The one thing I would like everyone to know and what Christian tries to teach with her platform, “My Autism Speaks,” is that we must learn to take the dis out of disability and see the ability within because there is an ability there…you just have to find it.
“That in itself can be what brings an autistic child out of his/her shell. I truly believe that if we had not had the family support, the therapy, the pageants, the girls would not be who they are now.
“There are always people who won’t understand, especially now that they hear so much about Toddlers and Tiaras, but my kids have both received their lifetime call to service pins from the President for completing over 4000 hour of community service. Not all can say that of average kids…those without disabilities…mine have accomplished so much in spite of their disabilities.”
Yes, they have, and I stand amazed at the mom who holds it all together. Truly amazing!