October is Autism Awareness month in Canada. It’s an initiative that aims to increase awareness and promote understanding and inclusion for people living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) — a life-long neurological disorder that affects the way a person communicates and relates to the people and world around them.
According to the National ASD Surveillance System (NASS), it’s is one of the most common developmental disabilities. In Canada, one in every 42 boys and 189 girls are diagnosed.
Since 2009, Monarch House has been helping families with children that have been diagnosed with ASD by providing evidence-based services and treatment in their centres, clients’ homes and schools in B.C. and Ontario.
Although Monarch House’s local centre in Waterloo was forced to close its doors to clients in March, the team found new ways to connect, hosting virtual sessions throughout the pandemic and showing parents how best to support their children from home.
“It’s actually been quite an awesome experience to get to see how every family has adapted to getting services in a different format … some of our kids now do six hours of telehealth services in a day, which is pretty incredible,” Erin Swinkels, behaviour analyst, speech-language pathologist and clinic manager for the Waterloo centre, said.
Monarch House’s services aim to teach autistic children new strategies that help improve their day to day quality of life.
“Whether that’s being able to access more social opportunities, access their immediate needs and wants, self-help skills so they can have some more independence — really the sky’s the limit in what we help teach children,” Swinkels said.
The first step in their therapy process is learning what motivates each individual child, and figuring out how to meet the child where they are at. But there’s a lot of misconceptions surrounding autism and what it means.
“A lot of children that have a diagnosis will learn in different ways. It’s kind of different for every kid, but a lot of times they are picking up on things that we wouldn’t necessarily learn,” Swinkels said.
Monarch House’s main goal with ABA therapy is to “put themselves out of a job,” according to Swinkels, by helping children be able to learn in an environment, like a standard school system, without needing intensive services anymore.
In “A Father’s Plea For Funding” one of Monarch House’s clients, Matt Munro shared his story with TCE of life with his son Jack, who was diagnosed with ASD at two years old. Their family made the decision to start Jack in ABA therapy full-time, five days a week, for a total of 40 hours per week at the age of five years old.
Children under six who receive a diagnosis of autism in the province, in the current funding program, are eligible to receive $20,000 for one-time funding to purchase services, while children six to 18 years old are eligible for $5,000.
Ontario’s provincial government has committed to a needs-based funding program which will roll out by April of 2021, but most families are still waiting for more information during this time of transition. The prevalence rates of autism diagnosis are on the rise, and there’s a growing need for funding for families and children, according to Monarch House.
“We do everything we can to work with the families to provide them the services they need, to access their school systems, to have the best quality of life that they can, and to help parents to also maximize the learning opportunities they have with their child,” Rachel Koffman, board-certified behaviour analyst and the director of clinical services for Monarch House said.
TCE recently followed up with Munro to find out what life is like for his son Jack. Munro said that Jack has been consistently receiving ABA therapy for the last four years.
“The therapists that he’s worked with, they have been like family … they’re absolute lifesavers. I can’t imagine what would happen, or how things would have gone, or how things would go in the future, without having that support,” Munro said.
Criticism about ABA therapy, historically, have been that it’s too rigid, too robotic or structured, which is incorrect and outdated, according to Monarch House.
“We are very flexible in our approach, children have individualized programs. We are often very play-based and guided by the child’s interest,” Koffman said.
“If you were to come into our centre on any given day, what you would see is a whole bunch of children and therapists having a really fun time.”
The therapists at Monarch House also work closely with each family to make sure that parents’ and children’s voices and goals are integrated into the program. They then tailor that into a customized approach that works for each individual child.
At the beginning of September, Monarch House was able to reopen the doors to the public and begin offering in-person services again, while continuing to offer virtual options, with many clients opting for a combination of both.
“Families with special needs have been so impacted by this pandemic, and so I would love to emphasize that we are here for the community and we recognize how big the need is,” Koffman said.