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
My father nurtures a substantial collection of bonsai trees. He spends hours trimming and clipping these living works of art. Plants that are on the brink of dying often find a second life if they are adopted by him. Dad can fix nearly anything. He also builds things from scraps that would be most people’s junk. These two attributes have apparently skipped a generation. When we are gifted plants, they immediately become wards of my wife. A local nursery offered a series of lectures on plant care. The expert said that most houseplants are killed by over watering. Conscientious and caring owners excessively moisturize their leafy prizes. The roots, from all the loving wetness start to rot and as the color of the plant changes to shades of autumn, the owner thinks it must be thirsty. More water is the only logical solution. The intentions have merit but the result is a dead plant. The lecturer explained that after the Christmas rush, unsold poinsettias are put in a corner and given less attention and less water. His observation was that the plants become healthier and more vibrant. Stress will cause some plants to blossom.
One quality that I do have is to right brain ideas. My inside voice said, “this is how many parents raise their children”. With love and all good intentions parents will give too much. The more the parents do and give, the less the child has to be responsible for. Skill sets for problem solving and creativity become extinct. Gratefulness and responsibility are replaced by attitudes of entitlement and unintentional discourtesy. Parents will do things for their children because it is easier than teaching the child the skill. They may even think they are being Super Parents. Subconsciously the child understands that the parent has no confidence that they can actually accomplish the task. It breeds insecurity and poor self-esteem.
I told this analogy to a group of mothers that I taught in a morning class. My son was in the class and the ladies asked him what he thought of this. Coolly he replied “Yup, I’ve never been watered a day in my life”.
Every year we have a karate youth summer camp. Children from the Dojo come to a mountain lake for a weekend of survivor type games and karate training. The parking lot is about 150 feet from the main lodge. Every camper knows that they must bring all their camping gear from the parking lot to their cabins, by themselves. This is written in their information package. We recommend that the campers pack their gear, get their sleeping bag and carry it around their house a couple of times as a test run. Inevitably there will be parents that cannot help themselves and must carry something for their kids. At first we would have a Senpai [helper] ask those parents not to help but this was often met with an uncomfortable confrontation. Now we just let the parents carry the gear all the way to the lodge and then have the child take it back to the parking lot again. Now the parents get to see that their child has the capability to actually carry this stuff twice as far. The seasoned campers will never let their parents touch their gear. Parents of twelve year olds will unknowingly have their child look incapable to a seven year old that is carrying in all their own stuff. These parents have already put their child in a precarious position in the eyes of their peers.
Too often you will see a parent loaded down with sporting gear or groceries and the child is walking behind holding nothing but a big gulp. This type of parenting has created a work force that treats customers like burdens. Customer service is becoming an oxymoron.
A pet peeve of mine is parents negotiating and letting their children have too many choices. Some families are run from the bottom up and five-year-old children will dictate what the whole family does. Parents will say they like what we do but their child thinks karate class is too hard or they are not promoted fast enough, so they want to quit. Would they let their child quit school if they didn’t like it or choose not to go to the dentist? Soft parenting will create an unreliable work force and it does not teach the children how to deal with obstacles in life. Medicine doesn’t always taste good and adults should make the adult decisions.
A study discussed in the book Paradox of Choice told how a food store put a display table of six different jams. The next day the display had 24 different jams. Although the 24-jam display got more traffic, the six-jam display sold ten times more jam. If there are too many choices no decisions happen. Think of this in terms of the choices given to small children. When I was a child our parents said we were doing something and we just did it. We trusted that our parents knew what was best for us. Doctors used to tell us what they were going to do for our illnesses. Now, the doctor and expert, gives choices to uneducated suffering patients. Some parents give too many choices to emotional and immature children.
Grocery stores can be the scenes of screaming, crying children that are enticed by goodies at the checkout. The storeowners know a way into a parent’s wallet can be through the kids. Soft parenting has led to negotiating with children and has developed unclear communication. Parents that say “No” and eventually give in and change “No” to “Yes” are teaching their children that with enough complaining or persistence it will become a “Yes” and he will get what he wants. Tough decisions are not always easy. The moral goal posts cannot change as parents are put under pressure. There was a time that you could trust a man by his word. This was considered a good and honourable thing. I find that children like clear guidelines. It makes them feel safe and they will test those borders to make sure you still care enough to keep them.
Children are always evaluating the words and actions of the parents. This communication will guide them in all their future relationships and how they treat others. Communicating clearly is another way of watering plants appropriately. Like Mr. Miyagi advised Danielsan ” Walk on road. Walk right side, safe. Walk left side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later, getta squished, just like grape.
Sensei Chris Taneda is a 7th Degree Black Belt with the title of Kyoshi and is the highest ranking person outside of Japan within the Original Style of Chito ryu. He is a member of Karate BC’s Technical Committee and part of Karate Canada’s Dan Grading panel. Sensei Taneda has experience with Educational Kinesiology for Kids, Touch for Health and NLP.