It was eight years ago when life as Lisa Watson knew it officially changed.
A first-time Kelowna mother, Lisa’s son Brett was three-years-old and Watson had noticed some differences in the way he was developing, compared to other children she was around.
“He had a lot of separation anxiety, a lot of anxiety regarding new situations and changes to routine,” said Lisa. “He didn’t make great eye contact, his speech was delayed and something that we noticed was he was quite fascinated by lights and fans, mores than other kids.”
Brett was in pre-school at the time and teachers in the classroom noticed some red-flags in his behaviour. Brett and his parents were referred to the Child Development Centre where he was eventually diagnosed with profound autism.
“At that time autism wasn’t as well known so I didn’t have anything to relate it to,” said Lisa. “I didn’t know anyone who had a child with autism. It’s more recognized now, I’d say most people are aware of it.”
In the eight years since his diagnosis, Lisa has become acutley aware of the disorder and how it will limit her son as he grows older. She knows he will never drive and will never live independently. Today Brett isn’t your typical 11-year-old, even though he might look it.
“It’s tough now as he’s getting older,” she said. “To look at him, he looks like an 11-year-old kid but he’s not cognitively an 11-year-old. I’m starting to get more looks when I do certain things. I have to take him with me into the woman’s bathroom if there is no family bathroom and you feel like you have to explain yourself.”
Brett is anything but a typical kid. While neuro-typical kids are advancing to fist-bumps and high-fives and heading into the too-cool-for-school years, Brett still loves to be tickled. In school, he was held back a year before he started Kingergarten. Now in his Grade 5 class, Brett works on an individualized education plan towards a completion certificate, once he completes 12 years of school.
But he also continues to make improvements.
“He’s definitely made gains, his language has progressed,” she said. “As parent you always want them to succeed and make bigger gains. It’s hard. Sometimes you just want to be a parent. You don’t want to be their behaviourist or a teacher, you just want to do fun stuff that you would do with a regular kid.”
And now, thanks to a relatively new program in Kelowna, parents of children with autism are getting a chance to watch their kids take part in sports activities as opposed to being right at their side.
The Canucks Autism Network (CAN) has established itself in Kelowna and will begin registration on Monday for a series of programs including skating, soccer, basketball, fitness and more.
CAN has 15 staff members in Kelowna who work directly with the participants who sign up. Kayla Ungaro is the regional coordinator for the Canucks Autism Network in Kelowna.
“What’s really unique about CAN programs is the amount of support we provide and the minimal cost to participate,” says Ungaro. “We provide individualized, one-to-one support in an environment that is adapted to meet the needs of each participant while encouraging social interaction between participants. Parents can sign their child up for only $25 a year, which makes it accessible for all families with children on the autism spectrum. We want to provide every individual with autism with the opportunity to access programs that allow them to be active, learn new skills and make friends, often for the first time.”
For Lisa Watson and her son Brett, taking part in the CAN program for the first time last year was a welcome respite from her daily struggles. She watched from the sidelines as Brett received one-on-one help from an instructor.
“It was nice, I could just sit there on the bleachers and watch him and sit and chat with the other parents as opposed to having to be right there monitoring him,” she said. “He’s really athletic, He needs that physical outlet. It helps him regulate himself and makes him calmer.”
So while CAN provides an athletic outlet, Lisa has also taken matters into her own hands and is trying to help other parents who have children with autism. She is the regional coordinator for the Interior for the Autism Society of BC and holds regular support meetings as parents get together to share stories and information.
“Parents need to reach out to each other because you can’t do this alone,” she said. “You need someone to talk to. It’s very important. If I didn’t have the people in my support network I would have cracked a long time ago. Being able to talk to parents about simple things…it’s nice because they get it.”
For information on upcoming support meetings for parents of children with autism, you can email Lisa Watson at email@example.com
The Canucks Autism Network (CAN) first came to Kelowna in June of 2014, offering a family camp to families who have children with autism.
In August of last year the group organized its first family skate and then offered its learn to skate program before expanding to soccer at the start of this year and introducing basketball as well as social programs and fitness for teens and young adults with autism.
There are currently 90 members signed up for CAN in Kelowna and registration for its winter programs opens on Monday, November 23 at noon and continues next week until it closes on Friday, November 27.
To take part in the CAN programs families need to become members with CAN and for just $25 per year can do so. Beyond that there are no additional fees to participate in the high-quality, adaptive programs. All children are provided with one-to-one support in each of our programs.
The following programs will be offered in Kelowna during the winter session:
Skate (ages 4-15), Soccer (ages 5-11, open to siblings), Basketball (ages 7-15), Fitness (ages 14 & up) and Social programs (ages 16-30).
CAN says its registration fees are kept low thanks to its sponsors, one of which in Kelowna is the Kelowna Rockets Alumni Foundation, which this past year started a three year commitment to raised $100,000 to go towards CAN through its alumni golf tournament.
CAN CEO, Katy Harandi says the support CAN has received in Kelowna has been excellent.
“We are thrilled by the incredible support we have received from our Kelowna staff and volunteers, and the community as a whole and the Kelowna Rockets,” said Harandi. “Every year we aim to reach new communities and new families, with the ultimate goal of reaching every household affected by autism in the province. Our presence in Kelowna is an important step in this direction.”
There are currently have 15 staff members in Kelowna who work directly with the participants in our programs, as opposed to out of an office. Interested individuals can visit canucksautism.ca/jobs to apply.
To register for CAN go to canucksautism.ca/join to sign up or call the Vancouver office for help at 604-685-4049 ext 205.