Photo: April Statz, Program Manager, The Autism Program (TAP) at the Comox Valley Child Development Association. TAP was established in 2005 to provide evidence-based intervention services for children with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Editor’s note: This is the first article of a series of six to be published during this summer exclusively on Tide Change: Autism from Coast to Coast (article 1), Siblings of Children with Autism (article 2), Impact of Autism in Communities (article 3), New research and Conversations about Autism (article 4), What Autism Teaches us about Communication (article 5) and Life with Autism (article 6). These articles are meant to inspire a dialogue about the presence of the autism spectrum within the families of our community and how we can best support and help them address this unique multi-generational change in our Canadian society.
When I moved to the Comox Valley from Eastern Ontario, one year ago last June, I brought with me my own experience and evolving understanding about children and young adults on the autism spectrum. Not only was my nephew (now in his early twenties) diagnosed as a young child, but over the 23 years that I resided in my former local community, the number of new cases increased exponentially bringing the statistics to a staggering one in approximately 33 children born today in Ontario are expected to fall on the spectrum. In British Columbia, the numbers are about one in 56 children and on the rise. If you consider the current national average of one in 66 children ( https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/autism-spectrum-disorder-public-health-agency-of-canada-1.4598859 ), Autism has now become a daily reality for most families and their communities across the country.
With Autism, one size does not fit all. There are as many unique examples on the spectrum as there are children and adults living with the diagnosis. This is both the mystery and the challenge of dealing with a new national reality. Apart from the children themselves, parents and medical professionals were the next group immediately aware that something new was showing up during the developmental years on both a physiological and social interaction level. The next segment of society to be cognisant that something was changing in their usual classroom setting were the educators. Again, this situation has grown so quickly, with the second generation entering the school system, that we are only now finally realizing that this may be the new normal.
For those who may not be familiar as to what scenarios may occur in their interactions with a child or young adult on the autism spectrum, you may have to rethink your automatic judgment of a parent standing beside a five year old who is having what appears to be a very public “meltdown”. When two decades before you could have correctly assumed that the child was expressing its displeasure at not getting a favourite toy or dessert, today this child could be reacting to an auditory sensory overload at being in a shopping center when some loud and repetitive sound overwhelms them. Simply put, these children and young adults perceive the world around them differently than you or I. I am emphasizing the word differently because this is the key to understanding how autism can expand our perception of how we each uniquely “see” and “experience” our immediate environment and what can trigger a physical, psychological and social response.
In a way, “fitting in” will no longer be a requirement, because we will be adjusting our interpersonal communication style based on how the child or adult in front of us is most “comfortable” or “uncomfortable” with certain types of social interaction and environments. Language, gender and cultural differences will be irrelevant. We will have to literally learn a new way of being in order to communicate effectively with people on the autism spectrum. As difficult and frightening as it can be for a parent to be told that the change in their child’s behaviour is a result of autism, their natural concern is also fueled by the lack of understanding from policy makers and limited resources within most Canadian communities today. Therefore, autism is not only changing the developmental stages of our children, but it is also changing the limiting ways we may have previously used to interact with each other in the past.