Asperger's diagnosis saved Charlie's life: 'Daughter slashed wrists at 7 - now she’s beauty queen'
As she got closer, Sara Matthews saw the cutlery drawer open and Charlie clutching a serrated bread knife in her right hand, the blade against her left wrist.
Diagnosis: Girl had autistic spectrum disorder affecting communication and interaction.
Reading the note written by her young daughter, Sara Matthews felt her blood run cold. Charlie had left clear instructions. She wanted her pocket money left to her cousin, her favourite dress kept safe, and most of all, she wanted to say sorry.
It was a suicide note – found by her teachers at primary school.
“As I read it my heart broke into a thousand pieces,” recalls Sara, 40. “It was my daughter’s handwriting, yet the words were so shocking.
"She was so young to be going through such a dark time. I felt my stomach flip and my world just stopped.”
It was just one in a series of heartbreaking incidents that had begun when Charlie was only seven.
“You wouldn’t think a seven-year-old capable of suicidal thoughts,” says Sara. “But then I walked in on my daughter holding a knife to her wrists.
"I went into the kitchen and saw her back to me. I said hello, but she didn’t respond. I repeated her name and asked what she was doing.”
As she got closer, Sara saw the cutlery drawer open and Charlie clutching a serrated bread knife in her right hand, the blade against her left wrist.
Shuddering at the memory, she continues: “Her eyes were blank, just staring ahead like she was in a trance.
"Then she blinked and it was like she came back into the room. She looked at me and the knife fell to the floor as tears ran down her face.
“I would have done anything to take her pain away in that moment. She just looked so bewildered, lost and vulnerable.
"I was terrified. My poor little girl was so unhappy and I didn’t know what to do to help.”
Worried: Unhappy aged seven
Desperate to not distress Charlie more, Sara pretended to be calm.
“I led her out to the swing seat in the garden and held her. We sat in silence, me just gently stroking her head and soothing her.”
When Charlie’s sobs subsided she said she heard sinister voices in her head saying she was a “bad and nasty” child.
“They told Charlie me and her dad would be better off if she was dead,” adds Sara quietly.
“I fought back tears as I assured her that I loved her with all my heart and that she was going to be OK.”
There were no clues in Charlie’s early childhood to the dark depths she would plumb before she was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when she turned eight.
Charlie was born three years after Sara married electrician Keyton, now 42.
Sara, from Yate, Bristol, says: “She was incredibly inquisitive and intelligent. She could speak and learned numbers, colours and letters much more quickly than other kids.
"As she got older she would always want everything clean and tidy around her.”
In her early years she was a giggly, smiley youngster, but once she turned six she changed. She would come home from school saying the other children didn’t like her.
She found birthday parties overwhelming and started retreating from everyone except her parents.
“She started to tell me she hated herself,” says Sara. “It wasn’t long before she was saying she wanted to die. I couldn’t understand how she could feel like that. We had a happy home and she’d always been such a happy child. She was only six.
“She was always giving herself such a hard time. If she couldn’t do her homework she’d literally beat herself up for it, strangling and hitting herself.”
Carefree: Young Charlie with mum Sara and dad Keyton
Helpless, Sara would try to hold down Charlie’s hands by her side until she was calm.
“I’d take her to bed and put on Peppa Pig then lie with her until she was soothed, which could take hours,” she recalls.
After the knife scene, Sara and Peyton took Charlie to a doctor. But as they waited to see a specialist, she kept on trying to hurt herself, making attempts on her life at school. At one point the couple were getting a call from the headmaster every two hours.
“She would cut herself using a ruler or pencil that she’d broken. She even tried to electrocute herself by putting her fingers in a socket,” says Sara.
“She was just so young to be going through such a dark time. I gently explained to Charlie that she was my world. I promised her it would get easier.”
On Charlie’s eighth birthday a specialist confirmed suspicions that she had Asperger’s syndrome, an autistic spectrum disorder affecting communication and interaction. This had led to extreme anxiety and depression.
“I was relieved that we had a diagnosis but I had to accept that our future was going to be very different,” says Sara. Charlie was relieved too.
“It helped her learn why her brain worked the way it did, but I reminded her Asperger’s also gave her the talents she had,” We agreed it was something to be proud of.”
Charlie was prescribed anti-depressants. “I was wary of putting my eight-year-old on them. It felt wrong,” says Sara, who works as a carer. “But they are better than a suicidal child.”
This was the start of a long road to recovery but there were more worrying incidents as doctors tried to get her medication right.
Recovered: Charlie aged 10
Sara recalls: “Once I arrived to find the headmaster looking very solemn. He handed me a note written by Charlie. It read, ‘Dear Mum, I love you and I’m sorry. Please leave my pocket money to my cousin. Keep my bridesmaid dress safe and thank my singing teacher.’ ”
Teachers had found the note before Charlie could hurt herself, but Sara could barely take it in.
Then in April 2013, the black cloud began to lift. Charlie moved to a specialist school in Frome, Somerset, for children with autism and became a different, happier girl.
“She’d been lonely, unable to make friends,” says Sara. “But within weeks she was jumping out of bed to get to school. She made so many friends and was rewarded for her enthusiasm and engagement in class.”
At home, the old, excitable Charlie returned, dancing around and pretending to be on the catwalk. When she was 10 she told her mum she wanted to enter a beauty pageant. Sara was dubious.
“She didn’t like being around strangers, crowds, or doing things for the first time,” she says. “But she assured me she could do it.”
When it was Charlie’s turn to go on stage at a natural beauty pageant, Sara was terrified.
Sparkle is back: Charlie all smiles at a beauty show
“She was gulping air and visibly shaking. I was convinced it was a terrible mistake. But then she waltzed on to the stage with all the confidence in the world. She looked beautiful and radiated happiness. I was so proud I couldn’t stop crying.”
Charlie won the Mini Supreme prize and she was the happiest Sara had seen her in years, a complete transformation from the terrified and depressed girl of three years earlier.
“It gave Charlie the belief in herself that she needed,” says Sara. It’s amazing to think how far she’s come.”
Charlie, now 11, entered more pageants and has raised more than £2,000 for the National Autistic Society. She also volunteers at a food bank, the RSPCA and the Dog’s Trust.
Helping: Charlie volunteers and donates to a food bank
Her pageant success led to work as a child model and she’s even sung in front of 400 people... something previously unthinkable.
“She’s got her sparkle back,” says Sara. “She understands why Asperger’s makes her the way she is, but like one of her favourite puzzles, it’s only a little part of her.
“What she went through was so horrible. But it’s made Charlie even more special and wonderful. Now, all we care about is that she’s happy.
“And finally, we know that she is.”
To help beat depression or suicidal thoughts go online to samaritans.org or call 08457 90 90 90.
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