Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

The Two Of Them: an unusual friendship [November 3]

After Olga Tennison, 80, met psychologist Professor Cheryl Dissanayake, 47, in 2007 she made the first of several six-figure donations to autism research. A year later the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC) opened at Latrobe University. Here’s how it happened:

Olga: I have a grandson with Asperger Syndrome and I wanted to try to do something for autism. When Nicholas was quite new I looked at him and thought ‘this is not right’. He was having medical check-ups because he was premature and the doctor would say ‘he’ll catch up’. But they don’t catch up and they often regress. He was twelve when he was diagnosed, which was far too late.

Before I met Cheryl I thought she would probably be a large lady with a tight bun who would be very intolerant of poor little me not knowing much about anything. But there was this lissome creature sitting in front of me and as soon as she started to talk about autism she seemed to know what had to be done. Cheryl had been going to the health centres, alerting the nursing sisters what to look for in the babies so they could tell the mothers ‘there is a possibility your child is autistic’ and give the baby to an expert for a diagnosis.

Cheryl talked to me for three hours and oh boy, her intelligence, her competence, everything about her was incredible. She had so much energy I thought she might jump out of her skin. I immediately wrote out a cheque and that’s how it all started.

When I was young I did radio and television plays for the ABC. I even had a nom de plume, ‘Elizabeth Lang’. I met my husband Patrick Tennison in Brisbane in the theatre company. He was a journalist and he went to Sydney to work for the Sun but he came back for me and we got engaged. He died twenty-five years ago.

I love penguins and masks and whenever Cheryl goes away traveling for work she always brings me back little bells in the shape of penguins and masks. I say to her, ‘You mustn’t do that’ but I love those things.

If I see something in the paper about the possible causes of autism I will ring her and let her know. Sometimes even I know it’s nonsense, like babies’ bottles warmed in the microwave. I feel she should know about it because people might ask her about it.

It’s an unlikely relationship but we are completely honest with one another. We joke around. Sometimes we call OTARC the RACV or the RSPCA. One day she picked me up to take me to a Latrobe event and in the car I tried to find out what it was about. She told me she wasn’t sure but when I got there they asked if I would be an Honorary Grandmother at the Autism Early Learning and Care Centre at Latrobe. Cheryl didn’t tell me beforehand and that was the one time when the relationship sort of broke down. Afterwards we were alright, though, because I understood why she had done it. She thought I might say no.

One day at the Centre I saw this woman with two autistic children. Neither of them had been able to speak and just as I was leaving she came over to me. Her face lit up and she said ‘I have to tell you this morning my elder son turned to me and said ‘I love you mummy’ and that’s the first thing he’s ever said’. This is what Cheryl is helping to achieve. She has a delightful family and I would very much like to be around when Cheryl’s own two children grow up, but unfortunately I wont be.

Cheryl: I’m originally from Sri Lanka, which used to be called Serendipity, and there has been so much serendipity in my relationship with Olga. The first time we met it was just another meeting in my diary. I had no idea what she wanted. I drove to Autism Victoria and the first thing I thought was – she’s so tiny! I’ve always been the shortest, stuck at the end of photographs, so I was shocked by how tiny and exquisite she was. After a couple of hours of talking about autism Olga wanted to write out a cheque in my name. I said ‘You can’t do that, I could go to the Bahamas!’ and she said ‘Oh but I know you won’t’.

The most alarming thing is that she has never once said ‘I want you to use the money this way’. She has given her money away with no ties to it and that’s an incredible trust she has placed in me and the other people at the Centre at Latrobe. I find it empowering but also weighty because you want to do the best to honour her gift. She wants no accolades and she gets mad with me when I try and make a fuss of her. She says, ‘All I’ve done is scratch my name across a couple of pieces of paper’.

The last cheque she gave me was at a gathering of Latrobe University dignitaries. She handed me a parcel and said ‘There’s something in there for you’. I took an envelope out of the parcel and it was another six figure donation and a note that said ‘Enjoy the Bahamas’.

Olga lives a very frugal life. Practically all she has is a phone, a TV and a set top box, and she can’t understand why it’s at the bottom of the TV, not the top. She knows all the op shops around where she lives and she dresses with great style. At our last AGM she wore a plastic raincoat that was white with blue dots, matching Wellingtons and a matching umbrella.

She hates to cook so she eats frugally as well. I worry about whether she looks after herself. Her husband died twenty-five years ago and sometimes I think she’s lonely, living alone. She has a strong faith and walks to and from her church, where she’s a sacristan, every day in all weather. I live ten minutes away and I always say, ‘if you ever need anything’ but she never asks. She is painfully practical and doesn’t like any excess. We don’t talk about politics. She’s quite conservative and I’m not, and there are people she can’t stand in the Labor Party, but we steer away from it. It doesn’t come into our friendship at all.

Since the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre opened in June 2008 we’ve been able to set up the first early assessment clinic in Australia, where we can identify younger and younger children with autism. It’s so important because when they are diagnosed early you can intervene when the brain is at its most malleable. You can bring that child back into the social loop so they have some access to other people.

I often take Olga to events at Latrobe and we’re always the last ones to leave those dinners. We’re both chatterers. She engages with everybody, including the waiting staff. Until she had her second child Olga was an actress on radio and TV and she speaks beautifully. When she was at our house on Xmas Eve we were talking about how fast my daughter speaks and she said to my daughter, ‘You need to enunciate. Do you know the poem The Walrus and the Carpenter by Lewis Carroll?’ Then she launched into it with such amazing elocution and characterisation, we were riveted. We listened from beginning to end – and it’s a very long poem – and then she said to my daughter, ‘You see?’ May she go on forever.