Updated: Jul 23
My passion for advocating and supporting people with disabilities started almost 35 years ago. I was a young girl, living in a small town, attending a regular Canadian, Catholic school. My school, like all others in my hometown, was not inclusive and therefore, I had never really met someone with a disability; until an amazing boy named Donnie entered my life.
My mum became friends with a woman from her work, named Kathy. I remember my mum warned my sister and I, in the car, on the way to Kathy's house for the first time. She told us that Kathy had a little boy named Donnie, who was just a year younger than me, however, he could not talk and he was "autistic". This was something we had never heard of. We had lots of questions and my mum asked us to please save them for after our visit. My sister and I asked questions after our many visits, that unfortunately in the mid 80's, my mum was often unable to answer.
Donnie had the biggest, brightest, brown eyes and the most charming smile that I had ever seen. I was mesmerised by the way he could spin objects of all shapes and sizes and his intense focus around playing with balls. He displayed so much affection towards his mum, dad and his black Labrador dog, Suzy. Donnie would show signs of affection towards others by rubbing their heads. He had very rigid eating habits, and I remember he would only eat a few different foods, ham being a favourite.
Donnie would frequently pull hair in order to escape a person or activity or to gain social interaction from others. Unfortunately, I had my long pony tail pulled on numerous occasions due to the fact I was in his space and likely quite annoying to him. His mum would feel so terrible and suggest I not play with him and keep my distance. The hair pulls never stopped me and I continued to do my best to interact with him. Over the course of 2 or 3 years, I worked so hard to engage with Donnie and at times he really did appear to be interested.
My family drifted away from Donnie and his family and it wasn't until years later, when I began my journey in working with children with autism, that I realised what an incredible impact Donnie had on my life and where I was headed professionally. Donnie taught me as a young child the importance of inclusion, engagement and compassion for others.
I was fortunate enough to begin working with children with autism close to 15 years after I met Donnie. As an Applied Behaviour Analysis Therapist, working with 2 - 6 year olds, diagnosed with autism, I couldn't help but wonder, if these evidence based practices had been available to Donnie in the early 80's, what impact could that have had on both him and his family? The seven years that I spent working to provide intensive behavioural interventions to children with autism was the most powerful and satisfying work that I have ever experienced. There is absolutely no better feeling than teaching a child an effective communication system, to eat a new food or helping them to effectively integrate and succeed at school. The personal connections that I was able to make with the many amazing families and their unique children, throughout this process was so valuable. The scientific based strategies and effective practices have continued to guide me throughout both my personal and professional life and will always inform the work I do.