Nine-year-old Marcus Robertson of Musgravetown was diagnosed with autism at a young age. — Submitted photo
Marcus Robertson loves trains, animals, languages and homemade spaghetti.
The nine-year-old can speak a little French and Spanish and is learning Japanese, his mother Connie Robertson says.
Marcus’s interest in languages, particularly sign language, started at an early age. He could sign about 100 words before he could speak.
Marcus was diagnosed with autism at a young age. People with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) have varying degrees of difficulty in social interaction and communication and may show repetitive behaviours and unusual attachments to objects or routines.
The Robertson family lives in Musgravetown, Bonavista Bay.
Marcus started Grade 4 at Anthony Paddon Elementary this week. He has an eating phobia towards many foods. He refuses to eat in school, his mother says.
That leaves him easily distracted and he tires easily.
“Marcus hates school,” she says. “Every morning it’s a struggle.”
Robertson says her son doesn’t qualify for a student assistant but gets some help from the school’s special needs teacher. That’s not enough for him to keep up with his peers, she says.
Robertson says there are several community services in nearby Clarenville that Marcus avails of, including programs at the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador’s office there.
“Marcus goes there two days a week and he loves it. He does really well there. They work on social skills and life skills. It’s not like an academic setting where things are drilled into him. It’s fun learning. … There are other kids there with autism and they are accepted for who they are.”
Marcus also loves swimming at the Wave Regional Swimming Pool in Clarenville and looks forward to going to the Lions Max Simms Memorial Camp every year, thanks to the support the family gets from the Musgravetown Lions Club.
Marcus’s mother says it’s the in-class learning that she worries about most. Anthony Paddon Elementary is a great school, she says, with great teachers.
Robertson says her son has the potential to become independent and contribute to society if he gets the supports he needs, but those supports just aren’t in place for him.
“The school and the administration is very supportive of Marcus and myself,” she says. “I wouldn’t change his school for anything. But he isn’t getting the educational foundation he needs. He needs that one-on-one. And if he could get that now, he won’t need those supports later on. He’ll be able to do it on his own and keep up with his peers.”
Joey Tizzard is attending Macdonald Junior High in St. John’s. The 12-year-old hasn’t been in school for the past two years.
Joey’s father, Don Tizzard, says it’s because his son didn’t get the help he needed at Roncalli Elementary, but he does have supports at his new school.
“He’ll have his own little spot there and his own little computer. Everybody seems to be onboard.”
Joey was diagnosed with autism at a young age. His elementary school couldn’t handle his outbursts, his father says.
Children in this province are mandated to attend school. If, for some reason, that’s not possible, supports must be put in place for learning at home.
Joey’s mother, Jackie, says that didn’t happen for her son.
“Joey was causing problems by running out of the building, swearing, being mean to other children and destroying classrooms. I decided to remove him from school for his safety and everyone around him,” she says.
Joey’s mother says textbooks were provided.
“The work was left up to us, and because of his dislike for books, we never used them. Joey learns better from computer,” she says.
The Department of Education says when a student is out of school, parents or guardians typically work with the school’s program planning team and the school district on a plan to transition the student back to school, with approved supports in place.
The program planning team can also address behavioural issues through a formal behavioural management plan.
See TRAINING, page A18
Joey gets help from a behavioural management specialist.
His father says Joey is an intelligent boy, and has learned a great deal though the Internet.
“Joey is verbal, he can speak his mind and he loves asking questions. He’s reading almost at a college level,” his father says.
He loves swimming, too, with other kids in the Autism Society’s swimming program.
Scott Crocker, executive director of the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador, says the society recently conducted a needs assessment of children with autism.
One of the concerns parents continue to reiterate, he says, is the length of time it takes to get an official diagnosis. The only health professionals qualified to make the diagnosis in this province are pediatricians in the developmental unit at the Janeway hospital, he says.
Crocker has heard from parents waiting almost two years to have their child diagnosed.
Early diagnosis is crucial, Crocker says, and without it, children cannot access the applied behavioural analysis therapy program.
The society would like to see the program offered to children with autism up until the end of Grade 6. Currently, it stops at the end of Grade 3.
Crocker says a lack of specific training on how to deal with children with autism among not only student assistants, but also special services teachers and regular classroom teachers is a concern for many parents.
“With inclusion, kids with autism are in the regular classroom for most of the day. So it’s critical that the regular classroom teachers have the training on how to work with autistic children.”
While children may be in the mainstream classroom most of the day, Crocker says when necessary there are options for “pull out” and one-on-one with the special services teacher.
That’s not happening in many cases, he said.
“Autism is a very particular disability to the child. Many can’t survive successfully in a classroom with 25 other students. The (teachers) don’t have the training to begin with and, on top of that, the kids aren’t getting the pull-out to help remediate the deficits.”
In order to access services in this province, Crocker says, a child has to have an IQ of less than 70.
Crocker was in the school system for 37 years, including 30 years as a principal. He says “that’s the most ridiculous guideline or selection criteria that exist.”
There are many children with autism with IQs over 70, he says.
Joey’s dad has the same hopes and dreams for his son as he does his 10-year-old daughter. He wants his children to be happy.
“And we’d love for Joey to have at least one friend. It’s heartbreaking that he doesn’t.”