"He can be feral, but he can be sweet," Laryssa King, 11, says of her younger brother James, who is busy tearing around the playground of a Mount Gambier primary school.
Since being diagnosed with autism at the age of three, James's connection with his sister has had a different dynamic to the usual sister/brother relationship. "She's a sister, a friend, a mentor and a carer," Kym Galluccio, from Mount Gambier's Carers South Australia branch said. "Sometimes her needs are put aside to attend to James's." Ms Galluccio recently nominated Laryssa for South Australia's Young Carer of the Year. And last week, at Adelaide's Old Parliament House, the girl from Mount Gambier stepped up and accepted the award, with her mum Chantel King proudly watching from the audience. When James was told about his sister's success, Ms King said he announced: "of course Sissy was going to win". "Sissy is always there to love and care for me," he told his mum.
Before and after a dog called Winter
In 2013, the King family were the first in the south east to receive a specially trained Autism Assistance Dog. But before affable Labrador Winter came into their lives, James' swinging moods and behaviour meant the family had to separate for outings, with their home locked down "like Fort Knox" to stop James' many escape attempts. But Laryssa ensured her little brother — who calls her "Sissy" or "Princess" — was never left out, snapping photos and bringing home little souvenirs to describe outings.
She also organised "fun school", where she would go through simple learning exercises with her brother and then a fun bike race or obstacle course to wrap up "school". Capturing James's attention with something he enjoys is something Laryssa excels at. "Everyone with autism is different. You can have learning disabilities but you can be really good at some things like maths or art," Laryssa said. As for the area her brother excels in, Laryssa said it was definitely sports. "He never runs out of energy," she said.
Giving young carers a voice
Ms Galluccio met Laryssa a year ago and was impressed with the empathy and maturity of the schoolgirl, whose thoughtful ways were having a hugely positive impact on her brother's development. But it was also her efforts in getting a group called Team Friendship up and running which prompted Ms Galluccio to nominate Laryssa for the award. Aimed squarely at those just like her, Laryssa's idea was a team to support other young people who might be looking after a parent, brother or friend with a disability, mental illness or acquired brain injury. Carers SA has about 130 young carers on their books, but Ms Galluccio said that was just "the tip of the iceberg", believing there were far more out there unaware of the service or its support networks. With far more on their minds than the average teen, these young people might be spending anywhere from five to 40 hours a week supporting a loved one said Ms Galluccio, sometimes at the expense of themselves. Beginning a year ago, Team Friendship now has a core group of 20 people from age six to 25 who meet on a regular basis to go bowling, horse riding or just head out on the town for dinner. Although the group also fundraises, Ms Galluccio said the main point was to get away from their caring duties, get some new friends and "be kids for a little while".
Looking after yourself
As Laryssa succinctly puts it: "the main part of caring is to make sure you care for yourself". "Sometimes I just need some "me" time," she said. "Then I'll do some drawing or listen to music." Ms Galluccio said it was sometimes hard to believe Laryssa was just 11-years-old.
"She's an exceptional young person," she said.
The schoolgirl was not afraid to speak her mind when it came to relevant issues, said Ms Galluccio, and her calm and respectful manner invited others to do the same. "She really is a caring young person and she's strong and brave," she said.
"There's a lot of depth to her."
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