Colin Wood’s journey with autism began with his son’s diagnosis but it quickly broadened to include other families with autism and a cross-section of the community that supports the efforts of Autism Nova Scotia: Pictou County Chapter.
“Like so many other families with challenges, we’re part of a caring Pictou County,” said Wood, who grew up in Annapolis Valley and now lives in Stellarton.
With nearly 100 member families, the association is a lifeline for those coping daily with the challenges of autism.
“The group and its activities have opened a world of social opportunities our children may not have had otherwise. We’re able to provide exposure and experience and understanding in a safe, non-judgmental environment and that is invaluable for four families.”
Wood points to the group’s swim program as one of its greatest accomplishments, noting water often poses a threat for people with autism.
“Knowing that autistic children are very likely to be drawn to water, we feel it is crucial that they learn to swim. We currently have 56 children with autism and related disorders enrolled in our swim program. They get one to one attention from Y instructors and they are all thriving.”
As some of the program’s swimmers have moved on to compete in Special Olympics, Wood finds it thrilling to see their new sense of accomplishment and self-worth.
“We’ve worked with the Y to develop the program and we have two St. F.X. students doing a video about it. We’re getting a lot of interest from other areas and seeing what it has done for our children, we’re very willing to share what we’ve learned. ”
The group recently acquired space above H&R Music on Glasgow Street, where they are in the process of setting up for an autism resource centre with increased programming, activities and support services.
“We’ve outgrown the classroom at GR Saunders School where we’ve held our monthly support meetings and we need more storage than the trunk of my car so having space is going to be huge for us.”
The space includes a reception area, a room large enough to be a boardroom, a small kitchen space and several open rooms. Paint cans and garbage bags are still scattered around but as Wood walks through the rooms, he points out the possibilities.
“We’re going to use a room for music therapy. It is something many people with autism respond well to but we needed a space to really get into it.”
Another room with a large donated television will be ideal for watching movies.
“Going to a movie is one of the things that can be really difficult for families with an autistic member. People don’t take kindly to a meltdown at the movies.”
The reception area is already party furnished with items donated by a local company or purchased on Kijiji.
“We’re able to access some government funding (through Autism Nova Scotia) so we’ll have an autism family support worker for 10 hours a week to start. We’ll add to that time with a rotating group of volunteers, all of whom have experience to offer.”
While the group’s main focus is autism they are happy to include families with related disorders.
“Every autistic child is different, every family is different. Some come to the group right away but others take time. Some come by word of mouth, some come on a doctor’s referral. They come because they are looking for help and hope. The more we can offer, the better off we’ll all be.”
The group’s main fundraiser is Walk the Walk for Autism, which is going into its seventh year. As walk co-coordinator Wood is responsible for much of the fundraising.
“In 2012 we had 112 walkers and raised $12,000 in our first time out. Last year we had 600 walkers and we raised more than $75,000.”
The group actually raised more corporate donations than most of the other autism walks in Nova Scotia walks combined which Wood attributes to the generosity and growing awareness of people in Pictou County.
“When I first started asking for donations, I had to do a lot of explaining about autism. Six out of 10 people had questions. Three years ago I didn’t get a single one of those enquiries. When I ask people to donate I also ask them to join us in the walk and come to the family carnival so they can see what we are doing.”
Another highlight of the year for member families is an overnight trip to Magic Mountain and the Moncton Zoo with 30 families participating last year.
“A lot of our families might shy away from visiting such busy places because there is the potential for over-stimulation and meltdown and being judged by others who don’t understand what they are dealing with.”
Wood has been there, he understands. Recently he’s seen the raised eyebrows when he is eating out with his son who may be using his iPad and wearing headphones throughout the meal. He remembers the rebukes and frowns of years past when he has had to carry a screaming child out of a store. But more often, he has also seen the magic that happens when families with autism come together.
“We’ve found group activities usually work out really well for the autistic kids and for their siblings. The Moncton weekend, with the support of other families, may be the only weekend away for some families.”
When Wood and his wife, Ardith, got their son’s diagnosis at three years of age, they could have been crushed but instead they were energized.
“Finally, we knew what was going on and we could start to understand. We’re still trying to understand how he perceives any situation but he has made great strides and we’re certainly not alone.”