HOW TWO WOMEN WHO WOULDN’T TAKE NO FOR AN ANSWER TRANSFORMED THEIR TINY NEWFOUNDLAND COMMUNITY FROM A ZERO-RESOURCES TOWN TO THE BEST PLACE IN THE COUNTRY TO RAISE KIDS ON THE SPECTRUM.
The human brain takes in information about the world through all of the senses and filters it as required. But imagine if all the information you took in from a simple walk down the street was coming at you all at once, as it does for a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The noise of passing cars, chirping birds and people talking would be like having three radios tuned into different stations at once, turned up so loudly that all you’d want to do is hold your hands over your ears. Throw in a police siren and you might want to run away. If you’re nonverbal and not able to tell anybody what you need or feel or think—you might even want to rock or scream or bang your head.
Autism is a developmental disorder on a spectrum, and every child has his or her own unique pattern and severity of symptoms. Some kids can practically blend in with classmates in a regular school, while others will need caregivers to look after them into their adult lives. It’s always a puzzle, and it’s always a challenge. It’s hard for the parents of kids with ASD, too: All they want is for their children to feel accepted and be happy. Through an amazing grassroots initiative that has captured the imagination of a whole town, Channel-Port aux Basques, Newfoundland, has become a place where that’s not only possible but also normal.
In many ways, Channel-Port aux Basques is a typical Newfoundland town: It’s a place where passing strangers say hello and where drivers slow down and smile so that pedestrians can jaywalk at their leisure. Newfoundlanders are known for being friendly, but the people of Channel-Port aux Basques have taken human kindness to a whole new level. Without huge funds and costly equipment, it has become a town where it’s a little easier to live life on the spectrum.
Over six years, Channel-Port aux Basques has gone from having zero local resources to becoming the first autism-friendly town in Canada. In the summer of 2017, mayor Todd Strickland made it official with a pen flourish at a declaration signing at the town hall.
It all began with two local women who wouldn’t take no for an answer.
The Public Health Agency of Canada estimates that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects one in 66 children between the ages of five and 17 in Canada. Numbers are most prevalent in Newfoundland at one in 57 children. (Of the 300 kids in Channel-Port aux Basque’s elementary school, 14 have been diagnosed with ASD.) As yet, nobody knows why.
This town of 3,665 is the gateway to Newfoundland and Labrador from mainland Canada—a seven-hour sail from Cape Breton Island. Up until six years ago, there was nothing here for families with kids on the spectrum. Parents of kids with ASD felt incredibly isolated. If you wanted to join a support group or access basic resources for your child, it was a two-and-a-half-hour drive to the nearest city, Cornerbrook.
But that all changed just months after April Billard’s son, William, was diagnosed with ASD in 2010. Billard grew up in Isle aux Morts, a 15-minute drive from Channel-Port aux Basques, where she lives now with her husband and two kids, William, 10, and Gina, 7, who also has autism. Billard vividly remembers the moment when William was diagnosed. Even though he was the same child she knew and loved, everything suddenly seemed different. Instinctively, she’d known a diagnosis was coming because of his speech delays, lack of eye contact and fussiness when touched. Still, she didn’t know much about autism and cried in the car the whole way home from St. John’s. Desperate for guidance, she turned to Joan Chaisson, a newly retired special-education teacher.
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