It was a rare moment in Geoff Sewell’s career as a singer. On stage in Auckland earlier this year, performing one of the songs from his latest album, the tenor was so overcome with emotion he just couldn’t get the words out. The music played on, but he stood there, unable to sing.
Instead, he looked across at his eldest daughter Sienna, who was on stage with him and her younger sister Olivia, and marvelled at the fact she was there singing alongside them.
“This was a child who, at the age of two, would scream the house down if I sang,” says Geoff, who founded the hit classical music group Amici Forever. “We were told she would never be able to make eye contact, or go to a normal school, and that she might have to be institutionalised.
“And there she was, singing in front of thousands of people. It’s amazing to think how far she has come. I couldn’t help myself, I got choked up.”
Sienna (now 11) was two when she was diagnosed with autism. Geoff and his wife Simone Lanham were devastated when doctors said their eldest daughter would never be able to lead a “normal” life.
Sienna didn’t talk, would squeal and flap her hands, and had monumental screaming tantrums for hours nearly every day, during which she would bang her head on the wall.
The medical professionals painted a very bleak picture of the future for Sienna, but Kiwis Geoff and Simone, who are based in London for Geoff’s work, were determined to do whatever they could to make life easier for their little girl.
Simone spent hours on the internet researching autism and possible therapies, while in 2006 Geoff made the tough decision to leave Amici Forever – who’d sold a staggering 3.5 million records – because being in the group involved long hours and lots of travel.
Then, during a visit home to New Zealand, the couple were put in touch with Northland doctor Debbie Fewtrell, who specialises in using biomedical treatments to help children with autism. Simone, who had already started eliminating some foods from Sienna’s diet, followed Debbie’s recommendations to cut out all dairy and gluten, and include supplements of vital nutrients.
Dietary changes are increasingly being advised as research shows a link between the gut and the brain, with problems in the digestive tract believed to affect the development of the brain and play a part in autism.
Geoff and Simone saw improvements almost straight away – tantrums drastically reduced and Sienna started to communicate. She was then able to undergo therapy called Applied Behaviour Analysis, or ABA, in which therapists work with her to teach her skills that people without autism pick up automatically.
“The idea is to teach her the complicated aspects of being a human being that don’t come naturally to you when you have autism,” explains Simone.
Today, Sienna has made such incredible progress that the ABA therapist who started working with her recently needed convincing that she is actually autistic.
“It was so challenging for her to live any kind of life. She still has challenges now, especially socially, but it’s like she is a different girl,” marvels Simone.
Sienna is fully aware that she has autism and that she was very sick when she was younger.
“She remembers what it was like. Although she doesn’t like to talk about it much because the memories are too painful, she can tell us how things would become too much for her,” Simone says.
She also understands why her strict diet is important. “There are times when she wants to try the foods she can’t have, but she’s usually the first to say, ‘No, I’m not eating that,’” says Simone.
The whole family, including little sister Olivia (8), is on the same gluten and dairy-free diet and Simone believes it helps them to perform at their best.
Sienna still undergoes ABA, with a therapist accompanying her to school, to shadow her and help out if she has any problems understanding the teacher.
“There is some brain damage as a legacy of what she went through but we’ve worked hard to get her well,” says Simone. “She is so conscious of what is going on. We don’t have to make allowances for her.”
Both girls are blessed with beautiful voices and Sienna recently sang at London’s famous Royal Albert Hall with her school choir.
“It was incredible to be in the audience watching Sienna,” says Geoff, who now has a busy career as a solo singer, as well as running an entertainment company called Incognito Artists with Simone.
“We could never have imagined that was possible when she was little.”
His new album, Live, Love, Sing! includes a song called Heal Me, written by Simone and featuring vocals from both Sienna and her sister Olivia.
Listening to Sienna sing, it is easy to understand why Geoff became overwhelmed when Sienna performed with him.
“When I think back to how things used to be, it’s impossible not to be emotional,” he says.
The couple have set up The Sewell Foundation to raise awareness and support other families, and say Sienna is keen to let people know why life so different for her now.
“It hasn’t been easy and there have been some pretty hideous times over the years,” says Simone, who gives seminars on what they’ve accomplished.
“But we want people to know that there is hope. Sienna is living proof of that.”