COLUMN: Investment in children well worth it

NANAIMO – Overwhelmed parents forced to seek pockets of financial aid and run a therapy team on their own.

Several years ago while working for a newspaper in Ontario, I was assigned to cover a small fundraiser at a rural church that was being held to support a family that had taken the province to court over subsidies for their young son’s autism treatment.

The court costs had threatened to bankrupt the family, which meant it would have to sell its farm.

The family argued that expensive subsidized therapy the boy had been taking was working, but once that funding stopped when Andrew turned six years old, treatment would cease because the family couldn’t afford it. Going to court was a last-ditch effort.

At the church, I talked to the father, David, and asked him how the treatments were improving his son’s condition. He said that over time, Andrew had gone from a kicking, biting, shrieking monster to a reasonably well-adjusted little boy.

I was doubtful – until I met him. Interview over, I was snapping some photos of the fundraiser when a boy approached me and asked if he could see my camera. I noticed David watching me keenly. I looked at him and mouthed the question “Is this him?” He nodded yes.

Andrew held my camera and began asking me questions. How does it focus? Can he take a picture? He was a perfect little gentleman.

After our interaction, David came over and revealed it was habit to keep track of his son’s actions. Only a year before, he said he would have been petrified to have any interaction with a stranger for fear of an outburst and possible harm.

The therapy was critical.

“Our goal is to have him become a good, taxpaying citizen,” said David, who clearly loved his son.

Shortly after our conversation the court made its ruling – the family won and it was able to keep the farm and continue receiving funding.

A couple of weeks ago, the challenges of autism gained national attention when it was reported that an Ottawa couple, after 19 years of struggle and exhaustion, decided it had no choice but to take its autistic teenage son to a government office and abandon him there.

Only desperation can lead to a decision like that.

Amanda Telford said she had no choice but to admit her son Philippe into the care of government. As Telford explained her decision, she said it takes constant care and a litany of treatments to look after a person with severe autism.

I don’t know the medical history of Philippe, or if his condition was preventable if treated at an earlier age, but I do know that for some children with autism, early treatment can make a difference.

The Telford case is particularly acute, but it is reflective of many cases of parents across Canada in the same situation.

Frank Viti, president and CEO of Autism Speaks Canada, a privately funded advocacy group, said in response to Telford’s case they are not alone.

“There are thousands of parents of children with special needs who are exasperated, they’re finished, they’re done,” he told CBC, adding there are many costs involved in the case of autistic children and that therapy can run around $60,000 a year.

Autism is estimated to affect one in 88 people, but that doesn’t include family members who must care for them.

If treatment in some cases is proven to work, and can reduce family stress while, as David put it, creating a good tax-paying citizen, then the investment in helping these children and their families is worth it.

In B.C., government support is, at best, weak. Already overwhelmed parents are forced to seek pockets of financial aid and run a therapy team on their own.

It’s time these families got some help, before more parents have to make the same difficult decision the Telfords did.