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Parent Talks priceless for parents’ peace of mind

When Jen and her husband Chris first received the autism diagnosis for their son, Austin, they felt lost and anxious. 

“At the beginning you’re floundering,” said Jen. “It’s daunting, it’s overwhelming, it’s frightening…it’s all those things.”

Their reaction is common. Suddenly, parents have to come to grips with the reality that their life, and the life of their child and family, is going to change dramatically.

Childhood disability can have a profound impact on parents. They can easily feel isolated, depressed, anxiety-ridden and experience other mental health challenges, not to mention financial struggles. Many search for support and guidance outside of doctors and therapists.

One night, Jen and Chris took the entire family (Austin has two siblings) out to a restaurant where Austin started to scream, loving the sound of the echo of his voice. 

His screams caught the attention of the family seated next to him. A little embarrassed, Chris asked the family if they were familiar with autism. In fact they were, as the family’s mother worked at Holland Bloorview. 

She not only offered words of encouragement, she also told Jen and Chris about the hospital’s Parent Talk series that has made a huge difference in their lives. 

Parent Talk is a donor-funded, hospital-run peer support program that helps parents of children with autism and cerebral palsy (CP) adjust to raising a child with a disability through family-to-family learning. 

Exchanging experiences

Parent Talk workshops provide a safe space where parents can meet, socialize, voice their concerns, share resources and tips, and tap into the wealth of their experiences. By sharing with each other, they learn new coping strategies, make friends, and gain valuable insight into life with childhood disability.

For many parents, particularly those with a recent diagnosis, it’s the first real opportunity to speak to other parents of kids with disabilities.

The hospital hosts 14 or 15 sessions each year, and for Jen and Chris it was exactly what they needed. Since that chat in the restaurant, Jen hasn’t missed a Parent Talk event in three years. She even attends if it’s a topic has been covered in the past. 

“You’re with people who get you,” said Jen. “You’re in a safe environment and that goes hand in hand with the speaker who has a plethora of information to share.”

Attracting between 10 and 45 parents, each session is two hours long and consists of a presentation by a subject matter expert, a Q&A session, and a chance for parents to network and mingle. In 2017-2018, attendance increased dramatically per session compared to the year before, with one session drawing 110 participants.

“Everybody has something to share and we always have something to learn,” said Jen. 

Bountiful benefits

Over the years, Jen has learned valuable tips for feeding, tantrums, acceptance, sexuality, sleeping, toilet training, technology, and the latest research. (For cerebral palsy topics include causes of CP, promoting friendships and stem cell research.) 

“We always walk away talking, and reflecting and planning ahead,” said Jen who plans on attending as many Parent Talk events as she can. “It keeps us on the right path where we feel good.” 

Along that path, she’s also made good friends with some of the other parents and sometimes meets socially for play dates outside the hospital. 

“I don’t know what we would do without Parent Talks,” said Jen. “It’s given us a sense of safety, security and peace in what can be an incredibly difficult journey.”