by Dr. Ellen Domm
I knew something was wrong when all my friends’ toddlers were calling them “Mommy,” but my 18-month-old had not reached that milestone. Levi had been born prematurely, was a colicky infant, then a tantrum-prone toddler who had problems communicating.
In 2002 I was a first year instructor at what was then Capilano College and Autism was just becoming recognized as a social epidemic, with 1 in 160 youngsters being diagnosed each year. The evaluation process was maddening - slow and complicated - with very few developmental pediatricians available to handle the surge of cases.
After two painful years of appointments with various health care professionals, Levi was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), a diagnostic category on the Autism Spectrum. He would be eligible for funding from the Ministry of Child and Family Development for treatment.
We were granted a monthly sum for therapy, but no information about the spectrum of Autistic Disorders, or how to navigate the resource system. As an instructor and clinician in Psychology, I felt it key to find evidence-based treatment and to get it as quickly as possible. Applied Behavior Analysis seemed to carry the most scientific weight, but competent consultants were in great demand, had long waiting lists; some were even flown out from the States to see families. Fortunately, I soon found someone with good credentials and available to us. He would provide us with a leader but we had to form the team: 4 or 5 individuals to work directly with Levi.
That wouldn’t be hard, I thought – I work at a college and could easily find responsible and motivated young people for the job.
How very wrong I was. We did end up working with some fantastic individuals, but hired, trained, and lost so many others within the first weeks and months. The process was frustrating, and expensive, and I found myself increasingly emotional as we lost time in the race to provide Levi the intervention he needed.
Meanwhile, he was making progress, which was tremendously gratifying. He was making eye contact and using words to communicate his needs and intentions. I was gaining hope that I would someday have a real conversation with my son.
After the eleventh new hire quit, I went to my Psychology Department meeting and posed to colleagues the idea of a work/study course for interventionists. I thought if parents could count on a steady stream of committed therapists who were getting course credit for this work, perhaps the problems I was experiencing could be avoided. One colleague, Cara Zaskow, replied, “I don’t think we should just do a course. Let’s work on a program!” In that moment, the ABA-Autism degree was conceived.
We learned so much in the years that followed. I am very proud of what we have developed – the first of its kind in western Canada. Levi continues to grow and thrive. He is reading at grade level, shows talent in music, is an incredible skier, and has an infectiously happy disposition. He’s affectionate and social, and we have real conversations on many topics. Like all youngsters, he has challenges ahead, but I’m confident that we will learn to negotiate them successfully with the help and support of individuals and organizations devoted to working with those with special needs.
Levi’s legacy will benefit individuals, families, and communities. With both theoretical knowledge and hands-on training, our students will be well prepared for the challenges and rewards of working with those with Autism.
Capilano University | 2055 Purcell Way, North Vancouver, British Columbia Canada V7J 3H5 Tel: 604.986.1911
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Capilano University is named after Chief Joe Capilano, an important leader of the Squamish (Sḵwx̱wú7mesh) Nation of the Coast Salish people. We respectfully acknowledge that our campuses are located on the territories of the Lil’wat, Musqueam, Sechelt (shíshálh), Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.