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Kelly: Challenges, joys of life with 'extraordinary daughter'

A special education teacher in Omaha always had a special interest in autism but didn't know it would become so personal.

Until she had Liz.

Yes, the special ed teacher gave birth to a special daughter with autism.

Jean O'Malley Sigler and daughter Elizabeth, 35, have shared the frustrations and the joys of Liz's life.

And despite the disappointments, Jean said, Liz has brought family and friends much happiness with her uncommon and often literal perspectives.

Jean calls those humorous comments “Liziosities,” as in “Liz's curiosities.”

At church when she was a child, her father would give her a quarter to put in the collection plate. Unhappy about being there, Liz once stomped into a pew, turned to her mother and said, “And tell Dad not to give me a quarter, 'cause I ain't paying for this!”

Years later she sent a get well card to an uncle, who had polio as a child and recently had undergone unrelated surgery. Liz wrote: “I'm sorry you got polio, but I'm glad it's not contagious.”

She also shows simple wisdom.

When asked for the secret to her recent weight loss, she replied: “Figure out what's making you fat and quit eating it!”

Liz Sigler's disorder is on the autism spectrum, a term for varied degrees of communication, behavioral and intellectual disabilities.

Even knowing what to call it has been difficult.

Over the years, she has been variously diagnosed as mentally retarded (now referred to as having intellectual and developmental disabilities), as well as being learning disabled, language disordered, hyperlexic and a person with “pervasive development disorder not otherwise specified.”

And, finally, a person with autism spectrum disorder.

More difficult than naming it is living with it.

“I never got to see Liz in a school play,” Jean wrote. “I never got to wave her off on her first date. I never got to see her accept that Ivy League diploma or walk down the aisle at her wedding or hold her baby in her arms. The ache I feel over those disappointments will never go away.”

And yet, she wrote, her heart has swelled with pride at Liz's accomplishments.

For example, taking a bus to work and home on her own. Calling her doctor and making an appointment. Walking a distance to get a prescription filled so as not to be dependent on her mother for a ride. Balancing her checkbook. Searching for the right question to ask someone to show she is interested in them.

Those examples are cited in Jean's self-published book, “Worth Keeping: Life With My Extraordinary Daughter.” (Available on Amazon.com.)

The title comes from a thank-you note Liz sent to a friend. Because her mother had always told her to say something about the gift, Liz wrote: “Thank you for the billfold, it is worth keeping.”

As Christmas approached, mother and daughter chatted near a fire in the hearth of their home in the Dundee neighborhood, where they have lived with husband and dad Bob Sigler, an attorney, for 29 years. (The couple also have two adult sons.)

Liz is charming, smiling easily and joining in the conversation. Asked how she liked the book, she replies: “Some parts were interesting, some were hysterical. Some — not so much.”

The book is candid. Jean writes about Liz's occasional rages of the past and times when she has seemed to be depressed. The past three years, though, have been much better.

Liz's main difficulty, her mother said, is in processing language.

With numbers and letters, though, she displays skills almost like those of Dustin Hoffman's character in the movie, “Rain Man.”

She has a remarkable memory for people's names, addresses and even license plates. When she was 3 years old, she could recite the alphabet — backwards.

For a few years, Liz attended public schools. In junior high, she transferred to Madonna School, for students with developmental disabilities, and graduated from high school there.

She stayed active outside school, too.

In Girl Scouts, she earned the Gold Award, the equivalent of an Eagle Scout badge. She took part in Special Olympics, excelling in bowling. (Liz and her dad still go bowling on Sunday mornings after church.)

She had a newspaper route when she was young. For the past eight years, she has worked in the cafeteria at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. And she enjoys going daily onto Facebook, where she has about 300 friends.

Jean's memoir includes a chapter on “Tips for Parents.” She has heard from former teachers who said they wish they had the insights they gleaned from the book while they were still in the classroom.

Besides having been a special education teacher, Jean became director of a parent training and information center. She is a former executive director of the Ollie Webb Center, which is part of The ARC of Omaha. (It was formerly called GOARC, which was previously called the Greater Omaha Association for Retarded Citizens.)

A continuing problem, Jean said, is funding to help people after they turn 21.

Personally, she looks further ahead, worrying about what happens after she and her husband die. Family members have said they will always help Liz.

In general, Jean said, society has become much more sensitive to people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. She hopes her book will help some people better understand those with autism and their families.

It is Liz's book, too, and includes some of her written and spoken words about various parts of her life. As the cover says, the memoir is “By Jean O'Malley Sigler with Elizabeth Sigler.”

“She is very positive person, and she has such a unique way of thinking and expressing herself,” Jean said in front of the fireplace. Including Liz's own words “gives an idea of how her mind works.''

Of her daughter's mind, Jean said with a smile: “It's a very busy place.”




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