By Devan Mighton – Originally published in the LaSalle Post on September 22, 2017.
Photo: Aidan. Photo courtesy of Candice Girard
(LASALLE, ON) – Every child is a gift.
Despite this, for a family, a diagnosis of autism for their child can shatter foundations built on years of love and dedication.
The stress, the stigma of the disease, the finger pointing, the self-blame, leads a shockingly high number of once happily married couples to divorce.
In LaSalle, in response to these issues, special needs families can seek the aid and benefit of Family Respite Services.
FRS actively enhances the lives of over 1,000 families in the Windsor-Essex County region.
They provide services to families with children from birth up until their 19th birthday.
The goals of the organization are two-fold: to improve the quality of life for special needs families and to provide children with opportunities to participate in their community.
For the Girard family of LaSalle and their son Aidan, Family Respite has offered a lifeline.
“It’s a more overwhelming, difficult family setting,” explained Aidan’s mother, Candice.
“That respite worker comes in helping the family, giving them a moment.
“And I think, as parents, if you don’t have a break to be with each other, you’re maxed out and you can’t be as positive and loving towards your children.”
Seven-year-old Aidan was diagnosed with global development delay and moderate, but high functioning autism at three years of age.
“Olivia DiMaio [Early Childhood Education Centre] helped Aidan get a diagnosis,” said Candice.
The daycare’s staff “had mentioned that his speech was delayed. Some of the behaviours were quite characteristic of autism, but at the time you don’t realize that; the lack of social, lack of imitation play, fixated on watching the traffic, not too concerned about his environment; he was not a cuddly, cuddly baby.”
Candice relocated from Chatham to Windsor in 2001 to attend nursing school and met the love of her life in Matthew, her future husband.
They moved to LaSalle to better fulfill their family needs.
Candice was beginning her career as a nurse, Matthew had established himself as a roofer, and the family was growing.
With the birth of Aidan in 2010, the young family relished the joys of parenthood.
Four years later, he was joined by his little brother Liam.
Many of the Girard’s friends had moved to LaSalle and they enjoyed their new town.
Candice is quick to point out the highlights of LaSalle, including the great schools, daycares, close-knit neighbours, and the sheer natural beauty of the town.
Aidan has been attending Sacred Heart Catholic School for four years now and his mother sees it is a second home for the new-fledged second grader.
“The whole school knows him, it’s like a community,” said Candice.
“It’s so nice because I don’t have that older child to look out for him, to say, ‘Mom, kids were bullying him,’ or ‘he stood by the fence all day’.”
“There is a community there of parents and teachers and other kids that have taken him under their wing.”
After Aidan’s diagnosis, it did not take long for the Girards to find the aid of Family Respite.
FRS offers respite care to special needs families, providing them with the services of trained caregivers to help alleviate some of the stress from everyday life so that parents can spend a little more time with their other children, rest, or catch up on errands.
FRS support workers also often help engage the children in community events, helping socialize them and to introduce them to new friends.
The Girards have been aided in their efforts by FRS coordinator Melanie Dault and social workers Lauren Potvin and Ciera Roberson.
Melanie came into their lives at a hard time; a time she was most welcome to help.
Matthew’s mother passed away from lung cancer just months after Liam was born, putting an unfortunate strain on the family.
“[Melanie] was the most amazing, loving person,” reflected Candice. “I was postpartum with Liam at the time. I had a baby and was hormonal, stressed, just overwhelmed and exhausted.”
Laura also stepped in as a saving grace and gave the Girards the room to breathe and to grieve that was required.
“It gave us a break knowing we could be with [Matthew’s] family,” she explained. “We could spend time with our youngest – that we were pulled away from – knowing that Aidan was well cared for.”
Ciera is their current worker.
Loving and curious
Aidan is a loving and curious child and every Friday, he and his mother enjoy a ‘date night’ together.
The ritual begins at the Bull’s Eye restaurant where the pair shares a pizza dinner. Following this, Aidan gets to choose where they go grocery shopping, where he acts as navigator and helps fill the cart.
He has made an impression with many of the checkout workers who have come to know him by name.
But like most kids with autism, Aidan has his rough patches too, often resulting in loud tantrum-like outbursts.
Aidan, as his mother lovingly points out, has a love/hate relationship with the family’s toaster – namely, he reacts to its blue status light.
The first day of school can also be quite an experience.
“It’s him not being able to express what he’s thinking, what he’s feeling – and that’s what’s causing these behaviours,” said Candice.
To aid with families under circumstances like that the Girard’s face, Family Respite offers a variety of programs to help these kids.
This includes direct support providers, associate families who allow weekend stays for special needs children, staffed respite homes, recreation-based programs like summer day camp, and sibling support for the brothers and sisters of a special needs child.
Despite the added stress in Candice and Matthew’s lives, make no mistake, they would not trade it for the world.
“You come to realize that this is life and you wouldn’t really have it any other way,” said Candice. “I can’t imagine Aidan not being Aidan.”
For more information, please visit FamilyRespite.org.