Life isn’t supposed to throw you curve balls…You grow up, you meet the person that rocks your world, and you get married. After a few years you start a family…one baby…two baby…and suddenly you’re the picture of the average family and life is hunky dory…or is it?
This is the fairytale. The ambiance of perfection… the happily ever after. You don’t even consider any other possible truth as you walk forward with a faith that is blind and trusting. Besides, you already have that mental picture of what normal looks like…you’re bombarded by it daily via social media, magazines, and billboards. You constantly see the smiling faces of those perfect families. There aren’t any tears or screaming…they all look so happy and normal.
What happens when your family has something going on that isn’t expected or typical? Do you close the door and hide, or do you try and find a new normal?
That’s really the million dollar question, and one that the Ferguson family of the South Okanagan asked themselves as they struggled with the hidden disability of high functioning autism in their son Tucker.
When you meet the Ferguson family, (Gord, Carrie, Tucker (12), and Charles (11), you’d never know there was anything different. They’re like your average, typical hardworking parents with two active and healthy boys. It was behind closed doors where the struggle was real… and it simmered for many years before they found their own normal.
Tucker didn’t quite fit into society’s unspoken definition of normal. This was detected immediately by a preschool teacher, who through years of experience, recognized the behavioural and cognitive issues. “Tucker was socially awkward and found interacting with other children in the school environment very stressful,” Carrie says. “Even at the young age of three, preschool proved to be very challenging for him and we knew we needed to find some help.”
They immediately talked to the family doctor and requested assessments and referrals. They jumped through every hoop put before them only to be told by a professional that Tucker had PDD-NOS or Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified. In other words, the professionals couldn’t pinpoint a diagnosis which meant no funding for extra help.
Tucker continued in the public school system because that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? What’s the alternative? What would you do if your kid didn’t fit into the mainstream classroom? The teacher says everything is ‘fine’, but you’re having to pry your child’s fingers from the door and force them into the car to go to school… every. single.day. The other children know he’s different and the bullying starts almost immediately. A relentless cycle of apprehension, disappointment, and confusion began to overtake not just Tucker, but the entire family unit.
“It was killing us,” Carrie says. “There were lots and lots of tears. The constant struggle was affecting our family relationships. I had mom guilt because so much of my time was spent on Tucker’s needs so Charles didn’t get as much attention. It was constant fighting and heightened anxiety.”
The change came for the Ferguson family when at nine years old Tucker was given a diagnosis of high-functioning autism.
“Yup, he’s on the spectrum,” Carrie says. “The diagnosis didn’t mean that the teacher or school suddenly had the expertise, time, or inclination on how to deal with him. It did help at home though because we could start dealing with Tucker in a different way. His brain was wired differently that’s all.”
Tucker endured the public school system until grade four. At that point he began talking about wanting to die, even to the point of imagining himself at the bottom of a nearby lake. When he told his parents, they pulled him immediately and enrolled him in a special learning centre in Kelowna (one hour and fifteen minute drive each way). “The change in him was instant. It saved his life… it saved our family. On day one in the new environment, he was a different kid,” mom Carrie recalls.
There was talk of moving the family to Kelowna because the commute was so time consuming. When they sat down as a family to discuss the possible move it became readily apparent that there’d already been enough upheaval. Tucker’s younger brother Charles was very happy in school and moving wasn’t the best option. So, after careful consideration and a lot of homework, the Ferguson’s took it upon themselves to open their own learning centre closer to home.
The Penticton Excel Centre for Exceptional Learning was established under the umbrella of a charitable status. It’s only for high functioning autistic children, has one full time teacher, and several specially trained assistants. The learning centre covers the B.C. Curriculum from K-12, focuses on social/practical/life skills, has an altered environment, and limited student enrollment. When you enter the centre you immediately notice there are no pictures on the walls, the lights are covered, and the floors are carpeted. “Many of the students are sensory sensitive,” Carrie points out, “these small changes make a huge difference in being able to function throughout the day.”
“There are quiet rooms that allow for self regulation, as well as work spaces with things like wiggle chairs and fidgets. Everything is designed and built with the intention of student success. This is a place where there are no bullies and the high functioning autistic child can be themselves. The philosophy of the centre is that every day is a new day, so if there was an upset the day before, it’s done and gone…you start fresh every single day.”
“In our Learning Centre, the children are assessed daily and their Individual Education Plans (IEP) are adjusted accordingly. In addition to the academics, they learn skills like personal hygiene, cooking, taking public transit, and grocery shopping.”
Tucker is now almost thirteen years old and is thriving. He still has a lot to learn, but he’s a very fortunate young man to have such tenacious parents who believe in him and didn’t close the door to his future potential. They found their normal by opening the door, not hiding behind it.
Faye Arcand is an award winning freelance writer and author. Her vast life experiences through work and travel have provided fodder and endless characters for her writing. Faye also has 48 nieces and nephews and has spent years giving them advice, encouragement, and sometime a knock upside the head. This led to her popular newspaper column, Auntie Says… which is published by Black Press. Faye lives in the South Okanagan with her husband, teenage son, dog, and two wayward cats. www.fayeearcand.com