The speech therapy and educational support Zoe has received taught her vital communication skills, which will be so important when she starts school next year. The progress she has made in such a short time is incredible and she surprises her parents every day!
Zoe was a happy, cruisy baby, but at the age of six months, her behaviour started to ring alarm bells for parents Tamara and Shane.
Zoe had stopped reacting to and interacting with the world around her. When she started having seizures, the family rushed straight to the hospital.
In the months that followed, Zoe's life was filled with blood tests, brain scans and she even had a lumbar puncture, to try and diagnose the problem. She was so brave, going through all of this before she even turned one.
"It was the most terrible thing we have ever, ever been through," remembers Tamara.
It was after some hearing tests that Tamara and Shane were given news that turned their lives upside down.
Zoe was profoundly deaf.
Months later, just as they were coming to terms with Zoe's diagnosis and putting supports into place, they received another bombshell. They explained: "It was after doctors had examined Zoe's ears, to see what type of cochlear implants she needed. One of the specialists came in with a bewildered look on his face and said, 'Your daughter's ears are absolutely fine. She can hear you.'"
While it should have been a relief to find out that Zoe wasn't actually deaf, it meant Tamara and Shane were once again searching for reasons to explain her behaviour.
After yet more tests, the answer finally came. Zoe had autism - and doctors said they had never come across a case like hers before.
Zoe's autism meant she struggled to make sense of her surroundings, or connect with the world. It was such a traumatic time for Tamara and Shane. At last they had an answer but they knew very little about autism and what it would mean for Zoe's future. When they were told that Zoe might never speak, they were devastated.
"Before we got in touch with Aspect, Zoe didn’t react to anything,” Tamara said. “Cymbals banging, doors slamming, dogs barking, me pointing at things – she wouldn’t even turn her head."
When Aspect therapist Steph turned up on their doorstep, everything changed. She started working with Zoe and teaching her different ways of communicating. First of all, Steph helped Zoe begin to make sense of the world visually. She stuck pictures of food and drink on the fridge door, and encouraged Zoe to point at what she wanted.
She also taught Zoe to make eye contact - a crucial part of communicating. During her favourite games, like tickles or peek-a-boo, Steph would pause for a while and encourage Zoe to show that she’d like to keep playing. Zoe learnt that if she wanted the fun to continue, she would have to make eye contact. As soon as she looked up at Steph, the game started again straightaway.
Gradually, Zoe started to participate in the world around her. She would look people directly in the eye, and ask for things by pointing at them. She even started to smile.
"From the start, Steph was so good with Zoe, and so supportive of the family," says Tamara. "Steph introduced us to different techniques that helped Zoe come out of her bubble. Even when Steph wasn’t at our house, she would still help. We emailed her with questions and she always answered straightaway. It was such a relief.”
With Steph's help, Zoe was communicating with people for the first time. This helped her feel much less frustrated, and slowly the words started coming. At first it was words like "mummy", "daddy", "bubble" and "ball", but gradually the sentences became longer.
Zoe has also gained vital social skills. While she used to find it challenging and upsetting when someone else joined in with her playtime, Steph taught her about sharing and playing together. Now, she plays so nicely with her little brother Finn and even uses a timer to wait for Finn to finish with a toy before she has a turn.
These skills were so important when Zoe joined a pre-kindergarten class in an Aspect school.
Since starting at the school, Zoe has gone from strength to strength. She's great with shapes and counting and has an amazing visual memory. She loves all the boys in her class and has even named her My Little Ponies after them!
In fact, Zoe has been doing so well that she'll be starting kindergarten in an Aspect satellite class in a mainstream school. It's such an incredible achievement.
Zoe has come such a long way – from the toddler so lost in her own world that doctors thought she was deaf, to the chatty little girl who is starting school alongside children who don’t have autism.
Tamara can’t believe the transformation either: “We were told that Zoe might not ever speak, and now you can’t keep her quiet! She proved everyone wrong. We ask questions and she answers us back. She says, “Mummy, I love you,” and I just want to cry with happiness."