Douglas Dunne cannot tell his parents that he loves them. Nor can the 22-year-old tell his only sibling, Danielle, how much he appreciates the things she's done for him through the years.
However, while Douglas cannot speak, he has learned to express his feelings in other ways.
"On our way home from the (Elaine Dobbin Centre for Autism) we'll go to my mother's and Douglas won't leave Mom's until he kisses her," says Douglas's mom, Clara Dunne.
Clara and her husband (also named Douglas) were devastated but not surprised when Douglas was diagnosed with autism before reaching his third birthday.
She had known there was something different about her baby since he was about 10 months old, she says.
"I was taking him back and forth to the hospital for hearing tests because I thought he was deaf. But they just kept sending us back home," Dunne recalls.
When Dunne's mother saw a television story about autism, she knew what was wrong with her grandson.
"After Mom told me about that story, I took Douglas to the developmental unit at the Janeway." That's where he was eventually diagnosed with autism, Dunne says.
Through the years, she says, Douglas has had many stumbling blocks to conquer.
Each September, for example, he'd have to get used to a new student assistant. "That caused a lot of problems," Dunne says. On top of that, she estimates the family has had over 14 home-care workers to help care for her son.
"It's a difficult disability and some people can't cope with it. But Douglas is a very gentle, loving man. I get too emotional when I talk about him," she says, taking a deep breath to control her emotions.
At 24, Danielle is Douglas's sister and best friend.
"She's had her struggles growing up with autism. But she never resented Douglas in any way. She's always been there to support him and has been there for us," Clara says.
What Douglas lacks in verbal skills he makes up for in other ways.
He's a whiz at the computer, loves playing Nintendo and helps his sister understand the special features on her cellphone. He can mow the lawn, with assistance, load the dishwater and fold and put away his clothes.
Dunne says her entire family is proud of the way Douglas handles his disability.
"Because Douglas doesn't talk, a lot of people think he doesn't understand. And there are things said that can be upsetting to him. But he's like me or you, only he's trapped within his own body," she says.
Because of his disability, Douglas was permitted to stay in school until age 21. When that door closed, another one opened, one much more suited to his needs.
Centre a haven
Nestled on eight acres of land behind the Janeway in St. John's, the Elaine Dobbin Centre for Autism on Shamrock Farm provides life-long support for individuals living with the neurological disorder which causes deficiencies in verbal and non-verbal communication and social interaction.
Over 137 individuals access programs at the centre each week. Douglas attends the centre three days a week.
He is learning vocational and life skills and really enjoys the music therapy, his mother says. The Dunnes live in Renews.
Communities along the Southern Shore have always been supportive of Douglas's disability, Dunne says.
Douglas also attends the Brain Spa to help control his autism symptoms.
As well, Dunne says, her son's social worker, Mary Rossiter, is an excellent support for the family.
Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador executive director Trish Williams estimates that about 3,000 people in Newfoundland and Labrador live with autism, 700 of whom use the centre's services.
Williams says there is a waitlist of adults to access programs. Dunne knows first-hand what attending the centre can mean to an adult. It's been a haven for Douglas, she says; a place where he feels valued.
It frustrates her to know there are others adults who could benefit from the programs if more funding was available.
"I know how much Douglas likes this place and for people not to be able to get that chance, it's terrible," she says.
Dunne has known for many years that her son will never live independently. Both she and her husband worry about what will happen to Douglas when they grow old and can no longer care for him.
"Danielle would certainly look after him but that's not fair to her," Dunne says. "She has her own life to live."
Dunne's fondest wish is that the province would establish a residential facility for people living with autism.
"I'd love to see Douglas learn to be more independent and to be out into the community more. But my biggest hope for him in future is that he be contended and happy," she says.
October is Autism Awareness Month
The Autism Society's Ladies of Country Music takes place at the Arts and Culture Centre on Saturday, Oct. 11. Pete Soucy, better known as Snook, will host the event which will see some of the province's most gifted female singers take to the stage. Concert tickets can be purchased by calling the Arts and Culture Centre box office at 739-3900.
The Autism Society's Active for Autism Walk takes place on Sunday, Oct. 26. Pledge forms are available by visiting www.autism.nf.net or by calling 722-2803. Last year's walk drew more than 300 people and raised more than $37,000.