Raising child with autism teaches parents about real love 2
The Geisers: Amor, Peggy and Brad. Photo courtesy of GMCI
Culture

Bringing up Peggy: What raising a child with autism taught these parents about real love

“It doesn’t mean ‘I love you but we can try and make you better…’ It means ‘I love you and let’s enjoy our lives together.’”
RHIA GRANA | Nov 07 2021

Brad Geiser and Amor Maclang knew early on it would be unlikely they were going to have children. The formidable tandem behind communications and marketing firm Geiser-Maclang Communications Inc. (GMCI) got married 21 years ago and since then Amor already knew she had hormonal issues preventing her from getting pregnant. So imagine their surprise when, two years into their marriage, they found out they were going to have a baby.

Six months into the pregnancy, Amor still could not believe carrying a baby was possible—when she had been told it was the opposite. She vividly recalls that period, which was during the height of the SARS scare in 2003. “It was not an easy journey. I had preeclampsia. I had to have a rush caesarian section. At that time, I was enormously heavy,” she says.

But the couple triumphed over the challenges. Brad and Amor welcomed their precious angel into this world on September 18, 2003. They nicknamed her Peggy, the first three letters of which are acronyms of the child’s real name.

Peggy Geiser
Brad and Amor realized that the best way to support Peggy is equip her with life skills and play on her strengths.

Meeting Peggy

On a Saturday afternoon, ANCX got to meet Peggy via a virtual call. She’s now 18 years old. A bright-eyed young lady with lovely curls that touch the shoulders of her printed white polo shirt. She is clearly more prepared than we are for the interview. She is wearing makeup but just light enough to show her natural beauty. She is wearing a choker and a pair of drop earrings.

With her on the Zoom call are her parents, Peggy’s teacher Caroline Valenzuela, and Trish Perez, GMCI’s PR and Stakeholder Management Manager, who helped arrange the interview.

“I thought [Peggy] should dial down a bit [on the accessories],” says Amor, looking at her daughter thru her Zoom screen. The working mom is stationed in another area of the house, as she was coming from another meeting. “I said, ‘Peggy, you choose between a necklace and an earring.’ She said, ‘No Mommy, thank you for your suggestion. But I want to wear both.’”

Peggy Geiser
Peggy (in photo with mom Amor) was diagnosed with a condition called Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).

Peggy likes to dress up. “I don’t know where she got that, obviously not from me,” Amor says, smiling. “She is a woman on her own, she decides for herself.”

The proud mother tells us more about her daughter. Peggy also has a lovely singing voice, she says. She sings in weddings and birthdays. In fact, she’s already performed in front of 20,000 people at SM Mall of Asia Arena. She’s working on getting her diving certificate, and she has trained for and finished an aquathlon. She plays the guitar and the ukulele and has played them in various community events. Hearing about all these, one almost forgets Amor’s daughter has autism.

“They called it Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS),” says Brad of her daughter’s condition. What does that mean exactly? According to a child development website, among the characteristics of a child with PDD-NOS are poor social skills and reluctance to establish eye contact. But clearly Peggy’s in a league of her own.

Peggy Geiser
Peggy performed "A Whole New World" with Christian Bautista at Autism Society of the Philippines' Angels' Walk event early this year. Screengrab from ASP's YouTube account

“Some of Peggy’s behaviors are different from the average child in the spectrum. She’s much more social,” shares Amor. “When you hear autistic, you usually think ayaw sa tao, hindi nakikipag-eye contact. Peggy’s the opposite. She loves people.”

Teacher Carol, who’s with her student almost seven days a week, echoes what Amor says. “Sa Enchanted Kingdom [which Peggy used to visit quite often] and in school, she knows everyone by name. Ganoon sya ka-people person. She knows everyone at the park. She’s friends with everybody.”

“When [Teacher Carol] says, ‘Peggy is friends with everybody, she doesn’t just know their names,” says Brad. “She knows their family members and she knows all of their birthdays.” Addressing Peggy, Brad asks, joking: “How many birthdays do you remember?” Which sends the Zoom participants laughing.

Peggy Geiser
“When you hear autistic, you usually think ayaw sa tao, hindi nakikipag-eye contact. Peggy’s the opposite. She loves people," says mom Amor.

Emotional WiFi 

Brad and Amor didn’t realize Peggy has autism until the child’s toddler years. “She was in pre-preschool, around 2 or 3 years old. We were called in by the teacher of her regular school who said Peggy might have a condition. I didn’t even know what that was,” says Amor.

Brad recalls Peggy undergoing tests in a hospital. The numbers indicated there was a problem but the attending physician didn’t want to scare or alarm them. They remembered being told to head home and assume it’s an error. Although they somehow felt that it wasn’t.

“There was a moment when real acceptance, when reality really hits you,” says Brad, recalling how they came to discover their daughter’s autism. “All three of us were lying in bed. Amor turned to Peggy and said, ‘Peggy can you hear me?’ And Peggy was just staring. No reaction.’”

When children are younger, the signs can be subtle. “There were times when your child seems normal,” says Brad. “But as the kid gets older, things start to become a little more pronounced.”

Peggy Geiser
 Peggy loves to sing and play the guitar and ukelele.

Facing their new reality was a difficult moment for the couple. “We cried about it,” says Brad. His voice is shaking while Amor is wiping tears from the corner of her eyes. “We fought against it. We tried to outsmart it. But in the end, that wasn’t serving Peggy.” 

Brad admits it took years before they completely embraced the challenge their family is confronted with. There was even a time he and Amor carried a certain kind of parental guilt. “We were always thinking to ourselves, ‘What did we do wrong?’ ‘Is it genetic?’” 

Peggy, who is intently listening to the conversation, looks like she’s trying to grasp what is being said. “Why are you crying?” she asks, beginning to look upset. Her mother explains that she’s happy and proud of her, and that’s the reason she’s tearing up. We try to lighten the conversation. 

“She’s an empath,” says Amor. 

“She has an emotional WiFi,” Brad offers.

Peggy Geiser
Part of the challenge of learning to dive is setting up the gear, which is challenging for someone like Peggy. But she is not a quitter, says Teacher Carol.

Empowering Peggy

Brad and Amor did exhaustive research and studies on how best to help their daughter. “Ang mahirap para sa mga parents who have kids diagnosed to be in the autism spectrum, there’s no definitive rulebook,” Amor shares. “You’ll have to find studies that will work for your kid.”

She adds: “When your child is diagnosed with autism and you don’t know what to do, your default [action] is try to cure. We brought Peggy overseas, tried different types of intervention. And we came to a resolution that what we need to do is make her the best version of herself.”

Because there is no rule book, there was a lot of trial and error. They attempted to send Peggy to a couple of progressive schools, for example, but this didn’t work. “Schools are primarily assessment-driven. They’re not really about empowerment,” Brad observes. “We needed to focus directly on empowering Peggy without having to worry about conforming with what other children are doing.”

Sabi namin, we’d rather that she learns real-life skills that she’ll need,” says Amor.

Peggy Geiser
Peggy with her diving coaches.

This realization led to their decision to hire tutors who will help Peggy discover and harness her potentials. Brad categorized their daughter’s teachers into two—the remedial teachers, or those who help equip Peggy with essential skills that she’s not strong at (e.g., math, language, speech); and the strength teachers, or those who will help find and play on her strengths.

“We had to find [those areas of interest] where her condition was not a disadvantage. And in the process, we found out some circumstances where her condition was actually an advantage,” says Brad. He cites an example. “Peggy has far more discipline than almost any other human being we’ve ever met. That’s part of her condition, sticking to schedules.”

Peggy shares during the interview that she exercises for a total of three hours each day. Among her fitness activities include diving, weightlifting and jump rope. She works with a trainer (Amor’s brother-in-law) for an hour and she does her own routines as well.

“Peggy has gotten me and Brad to Zumba,” says Amor. Mother and daughter love dancing to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.”  With Brad, she dances to Korean singer Psy's "Daddy."

Amor says their daughter has changed her and Brad’s lives so much for the better. Her diet, for one, has greatly influenced theirs. Peggy enumerates what she typically eats for breakfast—boiled egg, kesong puti, and corn. For dinner, she has salad and hummus. This is why The Farm at San Benito has been one of their go-to places as a family since Peggy was a little girl. In fact, one of Peggy’s 18th birthday celebrations was held at the famous wellness resort destination.

Facing her fears

A big factor in Peggy’s growth and development is Teacher Carol who, in Amor’s words, “has just been amazing in translating Peggy to the world.” 

Peggy was nine when Carol started working with the Geisers. “At that time, hindi pa sya (Peggy) masyadong reactive,” recalls the teacher. “She has her own world. She was quiet during the first two years.” 

What Carol and the Geisers basically agreed on in the beginning was that all of Peggy’s activities will be anchored on three goals—to keep Peggy happy, to keep her healthy, and to make her independent. Among the things they had to deal with were Peggy’s fears and phobias. She was afraid of so many things—heights, crowds, water, balloons, mascots, fireworks.

Peggy Geiser
Peggy with her supportive dad when she joined an aquathlon.

Entering an establishment was a struggle. “When we go to malls, we need to wait outside for an hour so she can process the environment,” says Carol. Hearing the national anthem, “Lupang Hinirang,” also scared Peggy—so she and her companion had to be at the cinema 30 minutes ahead of the movie schedule so she can familiarize herself with the place and what’s going to happen.

Amor remembers when the family first went to Hong Kong Disneyland and Peggy saw a black Mickey Mouse statue at the entrance. “She wouldn’t go in. She freaked out. Total meltdown,” recalls Amor.

But Peggy was eventually able to conquer these fears. When they brought her to Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea two years ago, she was already hugging the mascots. Wall-climbing and riding the roller coaster at Enchanted Kingdom allowed her to conquer her fear of heights. She also likes going to the movie house now, and enjoys dining in different restaurants.

Peggy Geiser
Diving with mom and dad.

Brad and Amor, both avid divers, were both resigned to the fact they can never enjoy the watersport with their unica hija. But Peggy proved them wrong. Just this year, Peggy started taking up diving lessons under Coach Marge Buot.

“Diving is challenging at first for Peggy because part of learning it is you have to set up your own gear,” says Carol. But one thing the teacher has clearly recognized in her student is that the girl’s not a quitter. “Although it was challenging for her, she continued learning it.”

“I went diving because I saw a lot of fishes down there. It’s challenging,” Peggy shares to ANCX, smiling.

Peggy Geiser
Peggy after finishing an aquathlon event.

Carol adds, “We were so happy in our dive last week kasi that’s the first time I saw her play underwater. She’s playing with the sand, trying to explore the caves. She even borrowed Coach Marge’s flashlight so she can see the fish clearly inside the caves.”

Occasionally, a phobia would still manifest. Peggy, they realized recently, remains scared of rubber balloons. “On her 18th birthday, I had this stupid idea—I dressed up the entire house with balloons. That was a nightmare,” shares Amor. 

“I cried and I stomped my feet,” says Peggy, prodded by her mom to talk about what happened. “I blew the candles and then I took off my gown. I want Ate Jirly to remove the balloons.” 

Peggy Geiser
Peggy (with mom and dad) wearing an Elsa costume on her 18th birthday party.

Support group

Since Peggy continues to be a work in progress, and challenges do arise, Amor says it’s important for parents to have a support group. Which is why the PR practitioner is thankful to the Autism Society of the Philippines (ASP), who has helped empower her and so many other families whose children are in the autism spectrum. 

“The president, Mona Veluz, and the chair, Dang Koe, have been amazing in the kind of advocacy that they have done for other parents. They are like the mommies of those in the spectrum throughout the entire Philippines. They have made us feel brave, be proud of the condition, they lobby for us,” she says.

An autism self-advocate, Peggy has been participating and performing in the past two annual Angel’s Walk events of the organization, being a living proof that a child with autism can reach his or her full potential. This is why Amor picked ASP recently to become the beneficiary of a Christmas project with Bow Tie Duck in which a bundle of her curated delicacies will be sold and a portion of the sales from each set will go to ASP. To support this cause, click on this link. https://bowtieduck.com

Peggy Geiser
“They may not have come with a playbook, but they are the playbook that teaches us how to be better,” says Amor of kids with autism.

Peggy Geiser might have learned so many lessons these past 18 years exploring her own talents and capacities, but her parents have learned just as much about the important things in life just by raising her.

“We learned what acceptance really means,” says Brad. “It doesn’t mean ‘I love you but...’ It doesn’t mean ‘I love you but we can try and make you better…’ It means ‘I love you and let’s enjoy our lives together.’”

Meanwhile, Amor says they also learned it’s the parents of a child with autism who usually put a limit on what their child can do. “These kids are unbelievable,” she says. “They may not have come with a playbook, but they are the playbook that teaches us how to be better.”