When Jessica Schurman learned her daughter Matea had autism about four years ago, she really wanted to connect with other parents on the “A Team”.
When Matea, who is now eight years old, was first diagnosed, Schurman found herself wandering around places looking for other little girls her daughter’s age. “Where are all these parents? If it is one in 67 (the rate Autism Spectrum Disorder occurs) how can I be the only person struggling out of this? Because I struggled. … I found myself staring at people, ‘Are you on the A Team like me?’”
That eventually lead her to starting the online Facebook support group Connecting Autism Parents, Red Deer, which now has over 300 members from the city and surrounding area. It’s become a place to provide encouragement and share information, activities and resources available in the Red Deer area.
Autism Canada defines Autism Spectrum Disorder as “a complex neurobiological condition that can affect the normal function of the gastrointestinal, immune, hepatic, endocrine and nervous systems. It impacts normal brain development leaving most individuals with communication problems, difficulty with typical social interactions and a tendency to repeat specific patterns of behaviour. There is also a markedly restricted repertoire of activity and interests.”
“One of the hardest things when you have a child with special needs is that you have to learn a completely different way to parent. And it’s really hard to ask for help sometimes, especially when your kiddos are so little. That was really difficult for me — to accept help and ask for help,” Schurman said.
The province’s Family Support for Children with Disabilities does provide good support but it’s still really difficult because children with autism can struggle with a wide range of problems, such as communicating, or learning to dress themselves, she said.
Alberta provides excellent services for children with autism, Schurman said. “We are ahead of the game but it’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination.”
Autism is different for everybody, she said, and the quote parents often use is: “If you’ve met one person with autism, then you’ve met one person with autism.”
“Going to the park is hard … because you have a child who maybe doesn’t like the feel of sand on their feet, or may get scared if there’s lots of insects buzzing around because they may be sensitive to noise. … you have to teach them what to do at the park.”
“We like to spread acceptance and awareness wherever we go (as a family) but that’s not necessarily how everybody feels.” Some parents and others affected by autism are staying at home, Schurman said.
“Lots of times we have parents, they are literally living in crisis mode. They don’t have support. They might not have family here.”
Schurman said when she learned that there was an online autism support group in Edmonton, she decided to start the one for Red Deer. Now they have monthly support face-to-face meetings. Free childcare is provided during the meetings, and sometimes they bring in a speaker.
Schurman speaks highly of the other parents of children with autism that she has come to know.
“I have met the most amazing people on this journey. I have connected with people who are so kind, and so smart and so passionate, and they are really changing the world for their kids. They’re huge movers and shakers in our community that you wouldn’t ever know.”
The support group meets at the G.H. Dawe from 6 to 8 p.m. on the third Tuesday of every month.