It would take another year and a lot of heartache for Mat and his TV presenter wife Chloe Maxwell to find out what that was. Eventually, when Max was 2½-years-old, he was diagnosed with autism.
“I was so angry and bitter after the diagnosis,” Mat says.
“I didn’t know anything about it and you immediately go to the things you think your kid won’t be able to do. My mind went straight to footy. Could he play? Chloe was thinking about whether he’d have a girlfriend.”
The family, which included Mat’s two older kids, Jack and Skyla, and his and Chloe’s daughter, Phoenix, were thrown into the unknown.
“Chloe cried herself to sleep that first night and didn’t get out of bed for a week,” Mat says. “It was tough for all of us but we had to get it together or what hope did Max have?”
After a meeting with their autism adviser it was decided Max would go to a special school where he could have full time therapy.
The results blew everyone away. Within a month he was able to say and answer to his name and he started using eye contact.
“Before that it had been like living with a little zombie,” Mat says. “He’d look through you, totally disengaged. I’ll never forget it, he was such a lost soul. You don’t know how much you need eye contact until you don’t have it.”
And as the months went on, Max developed in leaps and bounds.
“They asked me to come in one day so Max could show me some things,” Mat says. “He said ‘Dad’ for the first time.”
Not long after that came those three special words that meant everything to Mat and Chloe. “I love you,” Max told them.
Max is 13 now and of course there have been some hiccups along the way.
“Max has complete contempt for sport,” laughs Mat, the former Wallabies player and more recently a competitor on Australian Survivor. “He’s a great little swimmer but he’s not keen on competing or team games.
“If I play a game, I want to beat you, but Max wants to have fun which is the complete antithesis to me and my other kids, but it’s so refreshing.”
In fact, as life has gone on and the initial shock of his diagnosis wore off, Max gave Mat something he never knew he
“He’s taught me more than anyone else,” says Mat, who has since set up a charity with Chloe to sponsor kids affected by autism. “I used to be about what I could make and get but now it’s about what I can do and give.
“He gave me purpose and a new focus and I think I played better than I ever did in the last few years of my career because of Max.”
It’s a message he wanted to pass on to other dads and Mat’s opportunity came knocking in November 2018. Autism Awareness Australia was making a film for dads of kids with autism about the dads of kids with autism.
“In the autistic space some dads are amazing, but some run,” Mat says. “I wanted to highlight the benefit of sticking around. The light at the end of the tunnel is very bright.”
The film interviews 12 dads from all over Australia each of whom has gone on their own journey with a child who has autism.
They describe the good days, “getting a hug, getting a kiss, saying ‘Dad’,” says Alex James-Elliott about life with his son Taj. And the bad days when bedtime could take until 1am says Chris Doherty from Lidcombe; and how, now, they wouldn’t change their situation for the world.
“We met at the launch,” Mat says. “I meet a lot of families but it’s hard. I’m an emotional mess because I know the pain. I’ve felt it.”
This Father’s Day Mat and his family are in a great place though. Max is at a mainstream high school and he’s finding his way with interests like science and music. “He loves gardening and we work on the vegie patch together,” Mat smiles. “He’s taken me to a whole new world.”
And it’s not just his dad that Max has helped and shaped. Mat credits his boy with changing his whole family for the better.
“It humbled me. It made me understand what the world’s really about. It’s about other people and helping other people.
“It’s changed me. Forever,” he says.
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