Sharon and Eric
One mom’s wish to move past autism awareness
It's time to move from autism** awareness to autism acceptance, believes Sharon Gabison.
Make no mistake, Sharon whole-heartedly supports World Autism Awareness Day and everything it represents.
She welcomes every conversation that it sparks and every little bit of publicity it generates.
“But why not call it ‘Autism Acceptance Day’ or ‘Autism Participation Day?’” she asked.
Sharon is a physiotherapist who lives with her family in Maple, Ontario. Her son, Eric, was diagnosed with autism when he was four years old.
Now 20, Eric is verbal but has a developmental disability. He’s social, expressive and not the least bit shy.
How are you going to help?
“Most Canadians know what autism is,” said Sharon. “The prevalence is so high, it’s now one in 68 kids. It’s inevitable that you’re going to know someone with autism.”
And most people know that with autism comes challenges with communication and social interaction – it’s no secret.
Sharon wants families to go beyond just being aware of this disorder and for them to make an effort to get over any fears and embrace a child with autism, or embrace a child’s family.
“Ask yourself, ‘What are you going to do after you meet them? How are you going to help them participate in society?” she said.
A home in Holland Bloorview
Sharon discovered an inclusive society when she began taking Eric to Holland Bloorview for assessments in occupational therapy and speech pathology in 2005. (They became the foundation for a comprehensive treatment plan for him.)
“It’s such a welcoming environment,” she said. “I love the fact there are so many professionals working together to provide the best services for kids.”
She also loved the hospital’s model of family-centred care which led her to join Holland Bloorview’s Family Leadership Program and serve on the Research Family Engagement Committee.
“I want to help those who work with kids with disabilities to improve their services by understanding the family’s perspective,” she said.
Hoping for more outside the hospital
Unfortunately, life outside the hospital isn’t as accepting. She still deals with the stares, the comments and the isolation.
“People can’t see that Eric has a disability,” she said. “They don’t understand why he is behaving the way he is.”
And those who do know Eric sometimes shun him. “A child with autism isn’t invited to birthday parties, and doesn’t get invited to sleep-overs,” she noted.
Look past the social challenges and focus instead on the positive qualities every kid with autism possesses, she said.
“Kids with autism have unique gifts, and they’re quite pure in terms of their thinking,” she said. “They have their own personality. That’s what should come to the forefront, not their disability.”
That’s how Sharon looks at her son.
See him through my eyes
“Eric’s got a very unique perspective at looking at the world, there’s never any judgement,” she said. “He’s really great to be around.”
Eric currently attends Stephen Lewis Secondary School in a class with six other young adults with developmental delays.
Through school, he had a successful work placement at Shoppers Drug Mart last term and was nominated to receive the Yes I Can award by the York Region District School Board.
“Eric also has a very busy life,” added Sharon. “He attends adaptive music lessons, therapeutic riding, social skills classes, athletic club and literacy training. He also enjoys going out with his support workers to movies, swimming and shopping.”
Eric and Sharon’s growing social network
To Sharon’s delight, Eric is starting to make his own plans. “I never imagined he would be able to pick up a phone and call a friend and make plans to see a movie…It’s amazing,” she said.
Sharon loves sharing this news with her “two sets of families” – her biological family and her extended family of parents and other children who have autism.
Some are from Holland Bloorview. Others are from social media groups. “We can lean on each other because there’s unconditional acceptance,” she said.
“I just hope that over time, the public will also come to give unconditional acceptance.”
** “Autism” refers to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Children with ASD have difficulty interacting with others and interpreting the world around them because of changes in the way their brain develops. Some children with ASD may have trouble expressing what they think, feel or want. Others may talk easily but find it hard to play with others. Some find everyday sounds or the touch of a shirt tag can upset them. Others may repeat movements or words, have intense interests and prefer routine. The word 'spectrum' is used because children with ASD can have a range of issues – from mild to severe. Each child with ASD is unique, with diverse strengths and challenges that can change over time.