Joanne sweeps her daughter’s long, wavy hair away from her soft complexion, explaining they tried to straighten it this morning but it has a mind of its own, a strong will, much like Zalie herself.

Loving to draw, Zalie’s pen flows freely on the page, preferring to listen to her mother rather than join in the conversation. Drawing clear, precise lines, the page springs to life with a perfectly adorned Princess. Her stunning characters are sometimes depicted without facial features or expressions due to Zalie’s facial blindness, called Prosopagnosia.

“Once upon a time I couldn’t get a word out of her; at five years old she said nothing but babble. As a mother of a child with autism you can only hope that as they grow they’re able to verbalize more of what’s going on internally. Za (as she is affectionately known) has come a long way”, comments Joanne.

Zalie was slow to speak, delivering only small sentences by the age of six. Now at 15 years old, her deep, monotone voice is now easily understood. She still isn’t much of a conversationalist, but isn’t shy to let her mother know exactly what she wants.

“We had a lot of challenges in the early years, we really did. Zalie was not so angelic and quiet as she is now”, explains Joanne who lovingly describes her daughter as a kind, patient and caring girl. “Back then I had four children under six years of age; I was coming to terms with having children with autism, as Zalie’s twin brother Flynn is also on the autism spectrum. Narelle is like our savior”, she exclaims with relief.

As a Support Coordinator for healthAbility, Narelle stepped into their lives soon after the twins were diagnosed at two years old. “She assisted me with getting the help we needed; she’s been the person who has guided me,” explains Joanne.

Since the twin’s early childhood Narelle has helped facilitate vital speech therapy and social skills classes. The holistic support went on to encompass a host of other services, from transport to weekly clay classes and horse riding. When Zalie was younger she couldn’t get the coordination to ride a bike so Narelle organised modified bikes from Royal Talbot. She’s since connected the family to ‘House with No Steps’ and ‘Extended Families’ which led to carer outings such as social bike riding for the twins every Sunday. This gives Joanne and her husband Matt valuable time to share with their other two children Bryce, 17 and Anaye, 11.

Joanne continues, “I call Narelle any time; whenever I’m stressed or if there are dramas. I ring and say ‘I can’t sort this out, can you help me?’ and that’s what she does. With such a long history, she’s become like a friend, as well as somewhat of a counselor. Narelle has really helped us. With her work now funded by NDIS, I’m sure she will be in our lives for as long as we need.”

Part of Narelle’s role as a Support Coordinator is to help the family understand the NDIS, assist in developing their NDIS plan and effectively utilise their NDIS package to get the supports needed.

At present Zalie sees the transition from Concord High School to adulthood as very daunting but that’s when Narelle’s Support Coordination will become vital, at this next life transitioning stage. “She’s recently assisted Flynn to get a part time job which is great for a boy who is 15, let alone for someone on the spectrum. We are hoping in the next 12 months to get Za a part time job at a florist because she is very gifted with her design.”

healthAbility’s assistance has been important not only for developmental reasons and family support but also for social connection. Zalie only has a small circle of friends and they aren’t the typical 15 year olds texting each other and meeting up. As an aspiring artist Zalie still prefers to draw or create art rather than talk. She says it makes her feel ‘happy’ in her body. Zalie has successfully used art as a form of self-expression and communication for much of her life. “A lot of it depicts how she’s feeling, what stage she’s at in life or what she’s thinking”, says Joanne.

Zalie held her first art exhibition at just eight years of age. Her art has been exhibited at many places including Latrobe University, Melbourne Convention Centre, local cinemas, hospitals, cafes and galleries, and has been purchased by people around Australia. She enjoys doing art every day and creates using all media including pencils, paint, clay and foam. Zalie says her favorite thing to buy at the shops is a ‘canvas’ and her favorite colours are ‘rainbow’.

healthAbility has a long, proud partnership with Zalie and her family and recently purchased her mixed-media artwork titled ‘Movietime’, which sits proudly on display opposite reception in the waiting room. It attracts much attention and acclaim. The silhouetted characters depicted are seated in a movie cinema accompanied by two central sculptured figures. Zalie says it makes her feel ‘happy’ to see her artwork on show. When she grows up she plans to be an artist. Little does she realize, she already is.

To stay up to date with Zalie Copeland’s exhibitions you can like her on Facebook, follow on Instagram @art_by_zalie_ or email z-art@bigpond.com