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Jan22WedKids and adults with autism find their inner superpower at The Salvation Army's London Village. January 22, 2020 by Melissa Yue Wallace
At 13, Tessa Brydges can easily memorize song lyrics, tell elaborate stories about unique characters and regularly surprise teachers with her impressive rote memory.
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- Faith & Friends
“I call them her superpowers,” says her mother, Heather, from London, Ont. “They are amazing gifts.”
But Tessa’s gifts largely remain hidden in social settings because she can feel anxious, uncomfortable and crave her quiet time. Tessa was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at the age of seven.
“Growing up, Tessa had tons of words,” says Heather. “She would talk about a dog and then would say lines from a book or show. So you’d think she was talking to you until you would recognize her lines.”
Reciting lines from shows, movies and books is common among people with ASD and can be a coping mechanism in stressful situations.
Once Tessa was diagnosed, Heather felt relieved to have answers and to be able to seek treatment for her daughter. But finding help wasn’t easy. Heather felt overwhelmed looking after Tessa and her younger sister, Rachael, while her husband, Michael, travelled for work.
Hope came in the form of the respite programs at The Salvation Army London Village in December 2013.
“The relief the staff provide has surpassed anything I would expect,” says Heather. “They understand these kids and the pressures on parents. It makes me emotional just talking about it.”
Giving Families a Break
Tessa began attending London Village’s Saturday program for children and youth ages five to 17 who have ASD. They participate in fun activities, trips and outings into the community. The centre also offers an overnight program for children and adults, some who have autism and others who may have a diagnosis of a developmental disability.
“It’s meant to give families a break and promote independence,” says Sherry Rowland, program director, who has worked at London Village for 34 years. “It also gives participants the opportunity to make some friends and have time away for themselves.”
During the week, the centre runs a day program for adults with developmental disabilities who are looking for friendship and opportunities to learn life skills. They also have a camp for youth ages 12-17 with ASD. After participating in the Saturday program for years, Tessa attended camp for the first time this past summer.
“I love this camp,” she told her mother. “I don’t have to hide my autism here.”
Overall, London Village supports approximately 175 families in the community through its respite programs, and 50 of these families have a child with a confirmed ASD diagnosis. Families are always interested in attending more often as, with a staff-to-child ratio of 4:6, they typically get two Saturdays in a six-month block and one to two weeks of summer camp. But funding and acquiring enough qualified staff can be a challenge. Parents have also been asking about programs for adults once their children age out of the program at 18.
“Some families tell me their son or daughter has had a hard time at school or another environment because they present differently than other children and are teased,” says Sherry. “So they ask if there are any cancellations because their child looks forward to coming to the program and doesn’t have to worry.”
Once a child is diagnosed with ASD, parents sometimes find their primary focus shifts toward helping that child, which can result in stress on their marriage, other children, work, finances and other relationships. London Village regularly makes parents aware that a chaplain is available to provide a listening ear or prayer if they are going through a hard time.
Today, life at the Brydges home is busy. Heather works 12-hour shifts as a clerk at the hospital and Rachael, 11, has an active social life and many friends. Heather worries for Tessa at school as she has experienced bullying and teasing in the past. But both mother and daughter have found trust and respite in the ASD programs at the Army’s London Village and are grateful for the ongoing support.
“I like the programs because I can meet all kinds of people,” says Tessa. “I can fit in and have people who understand and are like me.”
Photo: Kristi Plain