Elijah Tonihi runs inside McKenzie Centre and straight towards the musical instruments beaming with delight when she activates the drum beat on the electric piano and touches the keys.
Watching on are parents Telena Tonihi and Sean Siakia of Pukete in Hamilton who marvel at the journey their 3 ½ year old daughter has been on since she started at the centre in May 2022.
“She wasn’t really crawling, it was like a butt shuffle, we were wondering what was going on, it was really odd,” says Telena.
By her second birthday, the only words Elijah could say were Mumma and Dadda.
At Sean’s urging, the Plunket Nurse got them a referral to the Child Development Centre (CDC) at Waikato Hospital – a child-centred and family-focused service for children who have, or suspected of having developmental problems.
“We just thought her joints were very flexible. She wasn’t even pulling herself up on furniture or any of those indicators,” says Telena.
It was Sean who sensed something was not right because he has an older daughter and so knew about the milestones his second daughter was not hitting, like crawling.
“She liked to scoot her butt around her, she pulled herself along,” he says. He also noticed it was hurting her.
“Me as a first time Mum, I didn’t realise there was anything wrong,” says Telena.
“It was just an eye opener when he thought something was going on and it really was.”
CDC recommended McKenzie Centre and the couple liked the idea of their daughter interacting with other children. Within weeks there was a diagnosis of autism which gave Telena and Sean more clarity. By then they had a second child – Bear who has just turned two.
Since starting at McKenzie Centre, Elijah is now walking and running, she is talking – not a lot – but every week a new word. She goes through phases, picking and choosing ones that she wants to use.
“I’m very proud of her. She is very expressive in her emotions and how she does things now. McKenzie Centre has helped very much with her learnings,” says Telena.
“Telena is a great mum, we can bounce back on each other. When Elijah needed these things, we just kept pushing,” says Sean.
She goes to McKenzie Centre weekly and so does Bear who hit all his milestones on schedule, something Telena found reassuring.
“With Elijah I just thought ‘am I not teaching or enough, what am I doing wrong as a parent?’ It’s very reassuring when I go to McKenzie Centre now and see her interacting with other kids.”
It is not just her learning in the environment, so too are Telena, Sean and Bear.
School is 18 months away and no decision has been made about how that looks yet.
“We have been looking for playcentres. We’re just taking it slowly. With how much progress we’ve made through McKenzie Centre, you don’t want to mess up all the hard work,” says Sean.
“We’re just going at her pace really,” says Telena which at McKenzie Centre means new challenges, different toys and equipment.
Like the monkey bars.
“She wants to just get up there and swing off or hold herself up there. We never really saw that before. It popped out of nowhere.”
So now they have poles she swings on at home or they take or to playgrounds.
Bear loves McKenzie Centre just as much as she does.
“With this environment it helps him. Not only is the structure benefitting her, it’s benefitting him too. All the attention we put on her, we put on him also. Without Elijah being so unique, we would maybe never had this journey. Now it’s given us a real strong take on what it takes to raise a child,” says Sean.
“Can we be here forever?” pleads Telena, knowing they cannot.
McKenzie Centre provides early childhood intervention and support for children from birth to school age.
The team of early intervention specialists partner with whānau to realise a child’s potential. The centre’s focus is on understanding and supporting the whole family to learn, grow and develop.
Sean has advice for other parents in a situation like they were before McKenzie Centre.
“You’ve got to keep knocking on that door. You’ve got to push and say ‘please, it’s only an hour, one assessment. You be that squeaky wheel and you’ll get the oil.
“You have to show you put your heart out there and they can see you genuinely want it for your kid,” he says.
“You know your kids best, you’ve got to push against the expertise and if you really show your concern, they’re not just going to treat everyone the same. I just ask as many questions as I can. When they see that, they won’t turn you away.”
“This whole journey – everything you learn as you go. At McKenzie Centre, you learn all the kids are not just a spectrum where your kid has got black and white in this, purple and green in this. They’re all so unique and different,” says Sean.
“McKenzie Centre teaches that individual growth that I felt from the start that my kid was an individual, she needed her special attention that only she could learn in her own pace and McKenzie Centre agreed and once I knew that we both connected and saw eye to eye in that sense. I knew something was there.”
Elijah needs to strengthen her core muscles and on McKenzie Centre’s recommendation has been going to Waikato Equitherapy in Newstead which provides riding for therapy, recreation and sport to children with special needs.
Sean says his family thrives in the whānau environment McKenzie Centre operates in and he always looks to the positives.
“It is always putting that little baby step, put that brick on the wall, one brick every day.
“These kids are special. You can see how they grow and interact with each other.”
He wants to make other parents and the community aware.
“When you’re in public and you’re shopping and other parents will look at your kids and go ‘crazy, your kids are acting funny.’ It’s not that, my kid is special and once everyone gets more into it, we can have momentum as a community.”
McKenzie Centre has motivated him to change his outlook on what drive and passions he needs in life.
For him it is investing back in the kids “just like McKenzie Centre does.”
Meanwhile they are constantly looking for new things for Elijah to do but being wary of over or under stimulating her.
They pay attention to detail with whiteboards all around the house.
Charting Elijah’s learning journey.