Marcus Robertson loves trains, animals, languages and homemade spaghetti.
The nine-year-old can speak a little French and Spanish and is learning Japanese, his mother Connie Robertson says.
Marcus' interest in languages, particularly sign language, started at an early age. He could sign about 100 words before he could speak.
© Submitted photo
Nine-year-old Marcus Robertson of Musgravetown diagnosed with autism at a young age.
Marcus was diagnosed with autism at a young age. Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) have varying degrees of difficulty in social interaction and communication and may show repetitive behaviours and unusual attachments to objects or routines.
The Robertson family lives in Musgravetown, Bonavista Bay.
Marcus starts Grade 4 at Anthony Paddon Elementary next week. He has an eating phobia towards many foods. He refuses to eat in school, his mother says.
That leaves him easily distracted. He tires easily, she says.
"Marcus hates school. Every morning it's a struggle."
Robertson says her son doesn't qualify for a student assistant but gets some help from the school's special needs teacher. That's not enough for him to keep up with his peers, she says.
Robertson said there are several community services in the nearby Town of Clarenville that Marcus avails of, including programming at the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador's Clarenville office.
"Marcus goes there two days-a-week and he loves it. He does really well there. They work on social skills and life skills. It's not like an academic setting where things are drilled into him. It's fun learning ... There are other kids there with autism and they are accepted for who they are."
Marcus also loves swimming at the Wave Regional Swimming Pool in Clarenville and looks forward to going to the Lions Max Simms Memorial Camp every year - thanks to the tremendous support the family gets from the Musgravetown Lions Club.
Marcus' mother says it's the in-class learning that she worries about most.
Anthony Paddon Elementary is a great school, she says, with great teachers.
Robertson says her son has the potential to become independent and contribute to society if he gets the supports he needs as a child. Supports that aren't in place for him, she says.
"The school and the administration is very supportive of Marcus and myself. I wouldn't change his school for anything. But he isn't getting the educational foundation he needs. He needs that one-on-one. And if he could get that now, he won't need those supports later on. He'll be able to do it on his own and keep up with his peers."
Meanwhile, Joey Tizzard is heading to McDonald Junior High in St. John's in September. The 12-year-old hasn't been in school for the past two years.
Joey's father Don Tizzard says that's because his son didn't get the help he needed at Roncalli Elementary.
Supports he will have in his new school, his father says.
"He'll have his own little spot there and his own little computer. Everybody seems to be onboard."
Joey was diagnosed with autism at a young age. His elementary school couldn't handle his outbursts, his father says.
Children in this province are mandated to attend school. If, for some reason, that's not possible, supports must be put in place for learning at home.
Joey's mother Jackie says that didn't happen for her son.
"Joey was causing problems by running out of the building, swearing, being mean to other children and destroying classrooms. I decided to remove him from school for his safety and everyone around him," she says.
Joey's mother says textbooks were provided to her child.
"The work was left up to us and because of his dislike for books we never used them. Joey learns better from computer," she says.
Information provided by the Department of Education notes that when a student is out of school parents or guardians would typically work with the school's program planning team and the school district on a plan to transition the student back to school, with approved supports in place.
The program planning team can also address issues regarding behaviours through a formal behavioural management plan.
Joey has the assistance of a behavioural management specialist.
His father says Joey is an intelligent boy, and has learned a great deal though the Internet.
"Joey is verbal, he can speak his mind and he loves asking questions. He's reading almost at a college level," his father says.
Joey loves swimming and does so often with other children enrolled in the Autism Society's swimming program.
A spokesperson for the Eastern School District reiterates the department of education's protocol.
Ken Morrissey said the district works with students, parents and guardians and schools to ensure student attendance and address issues which may prevent a student from attending school.
"As part of this, the school and the programming planning team may provide extra supports to the home such as textbooks and syllabus in an effort to keep the student engaged and as up-to-date as possible. Again, the objective is to have the student in the school and participating in curriculum," Morrissey said via e-mail.
The team put in place to help the student may include the classroom teacher, instructional resource teacher, guidance counsellor and student assistant, Morrissey said.
District level staff such as the educational psychologist, autism itinerant and speech language pathologist may also form part of the team, he said.
Morrissey said significant time and resources have been put into professional development of teachers related to autism, with significant financial support coming from the Department of Education.
Since 2009, the department has provided more than $1.2 million for an Autism Spectrum Disorder PD Plan for teachers and student assistants.
"As part of this professional development, we have been pleased to work alongside the Newfoundland and Labrador Autism Society," Morrissey said.
Morrissey said the district encourages parents or guardians who have concerns with respect to their child on the autism spectrum to meet with the student's teacher and the child's program planning team regarding those issues.
"Generally, in consultation with the teacher and school, issues can be addressed and the needs of the student met."
Scott Crocker, executive director of the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador, says the society recently conducted a needs assessment of children with autism.
One of the concerns parents continue to reiterate, he says, is the length of time it takes to get an official diagnosis. The only health professionals qualified to make the diagnosis in this province are pediatricians in the developmental unit at the Janeway hospital, he says.
Early diagnosis is crucial, Crocker says and without it, children cannot access the ABA (Applied Behavioural Analysis) therapy program.
Crocker has heard from parents waiting almost two years to have their child diagnosed. Some parents are thinking of taking their child to another province for a diagnosis, he notes.
The society would also like to see the ABA therapy program offered to children with autism up until the end of Grade 6. Currently, it stops at the end of Grade 3.
Crocker says a lack of specific training on how to deal with children with autism among not only student assistants but also special services teachers and regular classroom teachers is a concern for many parents.
"With inclusion, kids with autism are in the regular classroom for most of the day. So it's critical that the regular classroom teachers have the training on how to work with autistic children."
While children may be in the mainstream classroom most of the day, Crocker says when necessary there are options for "pull out" and one-on-one with the special services teacher.
That's not happening in many cases, he said.
"Autism is a very particular disability to the child. Many can't survive successfully in a classroom with 25 other students. The (teachers) don't have the training to begin with and, on top of that, the kids aren't getting the pull-out to help remediate the deficits."
In order to access services in this province, Crocker says, a child has to have an IQ of less than 70.
Crocker was in the school system for 37 years, including 30 years as a principal. He says "that's the most ridiculous guideline or selection criteria that exist."
There are many children with autism with IQs over 70, he said.
Joey's dad has the same hopes and dreams for his son as he does his 10-year-old daughter. He wants his children to be happy.
"And we'd love for Joey to have at least one friend. It's heartbreaking that he doesn't."