DANIEL Giles has been thinking a lot about Heaven and the meaning of life since the coronavirus pandemic hit Australian shores.
“I know Jesus talks about living life to the full, and I’ve kept thinking, ‘Hmm, what does life to the full really mean? Was I living life to the full before the pandemic?’,” Daniel said.
But if you asked Daryl Giles about whether his son has lived a full 31 years of life so far, the answer would be a resounding “yes”.
The affectionate dad is in awe and wonder of what Daniel has achieved since he was diagnosed with autism at two-and-a-half.
He’s watched a once non-verbal child become an inspirational public speaker with international regard, and tackle overwhelming challenges with determination.
“And the fact that he’s been doing this since he spoke at his first conference when he was 13 years old, that was mind-boggling at the time, but the way he’s grown …,” Daryl said with a proud smile.
Daniel’s resilience has enabled him to thrive in a world “that’s not built” for autistic people.
He started at a special school but eventually transitioned into a mainstream Catholic school in Bendigo, and after graduating completed a Bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design with honours.
He works part-time – now from home – for the Sandhurst diocese’s Catholic Education Office, and volunteers regularly at his parish of Kennington.
Daniel is proud to describe himself as autistic.
“I’ll say I’m not a person with autism, but I’m autistic because it’s not a bag I can put down at the end of the day,” he said.
“Same as I say I’m Catholic, and that’s not a bag I can put down.
“I was inspired by the autistic priest Fr Matthew Schneider, who proclaimed to the world last year that he was autistic.”
It was a different story growing up.
“I guess as I was growing up, there was an emphasis generally in the autism world that trying to be normal and pretend we’re not autistic,” he said.
“When I realised that autism can actually be a gift, I thought, well, is there any point in trying to be normal and is anyone actually normal?”
With such a positive outlook, it’s no wonder the City of Great Bendigo named him the Young Citizen of the Year when he was 18, and in 2017, at just 27 years old, he received Australia’s highest honour, the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM).
“I was already in awe of him but when we went to Government House for Daniel to receive the medal for the investiture, it really hit home to me,” Daryl said.
“That added to the level of amazement in Daniel’s journey and his determination to make a difference for people and the great work he does.”
Daryl is one of Daniel’s biggest cheerleaders, and since 2017 has joined his son’s public speaking company Speaking Insights to describe his side of Daniel’s journey from diagnosis to OAM.
But there’s another family member cheering for Daniel on the sidelines.
It’s his mum Janene.
Janene was a Catholic, and had Daniel baptised as a baby but she never saw him grow into the man of faith he has become.
Sadly, Janene died of a long-term illness when Daniel was eight years old.
Then while in high school, he attended a mission trip to Wilcannia, in outback New South Wales, organised the Marist youth ministry school program REMAR.
“Although I was baptised I didn’t receive my Confirmation, Reconciliation or First Communion until I was 18 years old but it was REMAR that led to that desire to do the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program in my parish, and I celebrated my sacraments as an 18-year-old,” Daniel said.
Daniel believes his mum is still encouraging him at every season, cheering for him, from Heaven.
“I went to visit her grave on her death anniversary which was the first day of the second lot of stage three (lockdown) for Victoria, and I thought mum was saying something like, she’s looked after me during this time,” Daniel said.
COVID-19 has been difficult for many Australians but it was completely uncharted waters for Daniel.
The first few months of lockdown caused him immense grief and loss as his world turned upside down.
“It felt like a rug was literally being pulled from under my feet in a way I had never experienced, even though I’ve been through hardship,” Daniel said.
His dad developed strategies so Daniel could cope with the sudden uncertainty brought on by the pandemic.
“In fact, early on we came up with a meme that was ‘Uncertainty is our new certainty’ which was an explanation we gave to Daniel to try and help him to cope,” Daryl said.
Daniel is banned from viewing news media and he has restricted what he can see on social media to avoid “divisive arguments and comments”.
He is also allowed to visit his dad’s home to break the isolation and receive care and support for his mental health and wellbeing.
For all the difficulties that COVID-19 has brought for Daniel, he has also achieved some incredible milestones.
“I bought a block of land and I’m in the process of building a new home,” he said.
“So I’ve been living in a flat for nine years and now on the journey to home ownership.”
He also wrote a prayer for Victoria that is available for download on the Sandhurst diocese’s website, reminding Australians to be “grateful for what we have”.
Daniel is particularly grateful for three things that he appreciates even more since the pandemic began.
“My friendships, going to church, family – they’re mainly the important things,” he said, as his dad jokes about being last on the list.
“I miss my faith-based community, which I’m slowly re-engaging with.
“I’ve been able to embrace attending live-streamed Masses, socialising with friends online and I recently did an Alpha course at a parish in Melbourne that’s running online and it was a blessing to explore my faith through that during these times.
“Yeah, it’s been a big help – it’s reminded me that for me there’s something bigger and a bigger destination in Heaven that I hope to get to one day.
“That reminds me that there is hope.”
Hope is what this outstanding father and son can’t wait to bring around the country once the restrictions ease further, with a potential trip to south-east Queensland set for next year.
“We talk often that the driver for us is the hope we bring, particularly to families,” Daryl said.
“We find that at most of our presentations we have at least one family come up to us at the end of the session who’ve got maybe a young three, four, five, six-year-old whose been diagnosed with autism and often they’re in tears because we’ve given them hope for the future.
“I’ve just got tingles down my spine now – that is just such a wonderful feeling to bring that sort of hope to people.”