It’s not often that words from a complete stranger can bring you to tears. But then again, it’s not often that you meet someone as inspiring as Poppe-Simone. .
We first met Poppe late last year at the Melbourne Show. She bravely stepped into our pop-up studio for a mini fashion shoot and her parents, Kim and Simon, were shocked at how confidently she handled it. You see, while you might not guess it from looking these photos, Poppe is diagnosed with high functioning autism. This means that her brain works differently to most of ours. It isn’t just that her capacity for learning and retaining information is different. It’s that Poppe doesn’t know how to read facial expressions or pick up on social queues – making social connection extremely challenging for her.
As a result of her autism Poppe’s biggest fear growing up was rejection. She never approached other kids because she felt that instantly they wouldn’t accept her.
“Everything that Poppe knows is learned behaviour. “ Explains her dad Simon. “If she’s in a social situation, you need to tell Poppe how to act, or else she just doesn’t know.”
After 14 years of social behaviour classes, Poppe has learned to say hi to friends and hold a conversation. Apart from not getting my jokes, she’s a regular teenage girl and awesome fun to be around. But sadly, Poppe’s life hasn’t always been so sweet.
Before finding a great support network at Marian College, Poppe had a string of horrendous experiences at school, starting from just 5 years old. “In my first grade of school,” she tells me, “the teachers would lock me in the class room because I was a slow eater.” “Kids weren’t allowed to go out and play until they finished their lunch.” Explains Simon. “So because Poppe was such a slow eater – you give her a sandwich and it takes her half an hour to finish it – they would put a guard duty on the door and say ‘don’t let her out until she finishes that sandwich’.”
When Poppe’s parents found out about this, they pulled her out of the school. But it was at Poppe’s second school that things got more serious. “The teachers did things that played with her senses.” Says Simon. “They just thought we were being overbearing parents… They didn’t believe she had autism. So everyday they dragged her by the arm into a tin shed with kids yelling and screaming… One day I found her huddled in the garden in the fetal position. She’d had a mental breakdown.”
Poppe’s school life got so bad that she began to develop tourrettes syndrome. She would tick constantly and her feet would literally leave the ground with nerves. “It was sad,” says Kim, “because she was the most excited girl to go to school”.
In the end, Simon and Kim pulled Poppe out of her second school and the ticking stopped. But after 6 months of home schooling, she was re-enrolled in a new school and that’s when the peer-to-peer bullying began.
“It was mainly these 2 girls that were bullying me.” Says Poppe. “They used to pin me up against the lockers and push me around the playground. They would be my friend one day and mean to me the next.”
“And what happened to you at camp?” Asks Simon.
“At camp?” She replies. “That was disgusting. They wouldn’t let me sleep on the bed. They gave me a choice, either sleep on the floor or sleep outside.”
“And what did they tell you was in the bed?” Pressed Simon.
Poppe looks down at her hands. “A massive spider.”
“Every time I picked her up from school,” says Kim, ‘she’d get in the car and kick her legs and just about break the windscreen. That’s when we had the pizza shop and every afternoon we’d go there, Poppe would hide under the counter in the cupboards for hours on end.”
Kim and Simon tried to get the school to help, but while they acknowledged what was happening, they essentially refused to do anything about it.
“What sort of treatments do they have for autism?” I ask, trying to lighten the mood.
“There’s no cure.” Replies Poppe. “I’m always going to be autistic.”
“Is there any medication at least?” I reply.
“There’s only anti-anxiety drugs” replies Kim.
“And I did take anti-depressants”. Says Poppe.
“Oh well that’s… That was only because you had those suicide attempts honey.” Says Kim.
Suddenly my heart clenches. “Do you want to talk about them?” I ask Poppe.
“Yeah, I want to talk about them.” She replies. “There was a little bit of cyber bullying. It was getting too much for me.”
By now Poppe and I both have tears welled up in our eyes.
“But now you know better don’t you?” – Says Kim calmly.
“Yes” replies Poppe. “I’m a lot stronger now.”
I hold Poppe’s hand and tell her that everybody at the studio thinks she’s amazing. That we all have a massive style crush on her and that photographer James B said she models like a pro.
For Kim and Simon, this photo shoot represents a pivotal step in Poppe’s progress. It wasn’t just about getting nice photos. It was about giving Poppe the chance to come out of her shell and interact with a whole team of people she doesn’t know. Not to mention the fact that Poppe loves dressing up and has always dreamed of being a model.
“Who’s your favourite model?’ I ask Poppe.
“Josephine Skriver.” She replies without hesitation. “She’s an IVF model and I like her because she takes the hate comments really well.” Poppe is also an IVF baby. After a serious car accident left Kim unable to conceive, her and Simon spent 14 years and over $200,000 on medical bills to bring Poppe into this world. It kind of explains why they live and breathe this beautiful girl and why they will do anything to protect her.
“What’s your dream after school?” I ask her.
“If I can’t make it as a model, I have a plan B.” She says. “I’m going to be a massage therapist.”
“We’ll give you a job!” I joke. “Our photographers get sore muscles from holding cameras all day.”
“I have my own massage table.” She replies. “My own disposable pillow cases. Massage oils. Everything.”
“She’s costing us a fortune.” Jokes Simon. “We pay her $10 for half an hour.”
“How do you feel when you’re giving a massage?” I ask Poppe.
“Um, pretty good.” She replies. “Because I know I’m getting paid.”
“She does wear her heart on her sleeve and I think that’s where she gets into trouble.” Says Simon. “She has a big heart and some people take advantage of that. That’s one of the things about autism. A lot of these children, they just don’t know hate. They want to be everyone’s friend.”
Poppe is now involved with an organization called Ican. It was started by a group of autistic guys to help kids with autism build their self-esteem. They’ve asked Poppe to be a mentor so she can work with young children who are going through the same struggles that she did.
We’ve been chatting for over an hour so I decide to wrap things up. “Is there anything that you want to say to people reading this article, Poppe? Any final word?”
“I want to say thank you to my bullies,” she replies, ‘for making my life a living hell. Because without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Poppe and her parents came back to the studio last week to collect their 5-page portfolio. When they arrived, we surprised them with a 10-page. To find out how you can support Australians with autism, visit http://icannetwork.com.au/