Original Article By: MARY CATON

Mary Beth Rocheleau knows all about the good and the bad of available programming and services for autistic children.

Her 15-year-old son, Greg is on the “severe end” of the spectrum.

She has seen day camp counsellors more interested in their cellphones than the youngsters in front of them.

She has fought to retain government funding for his therapy, which has been cut off twice and she advocates for all as one of the original members of the Ontario Autism Coalition.

“Nobody knows how to work with him,” Rocheleau said. “So I’m very picky about programming.”

For the past few years, Greg has spent PA days and summer break at Roots 2 Wings, an agency that offers programming for youth and young adults with a disability.

“When I go to work I have peace of mind,” Rocheleau said. “He likes it and he wants to go. Jody has probably got one of the best programs in southwestern Ontario. “They treat these kids with respect and dignity.”

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Three years ago, Jody Lowrie left her job as an early childhood vision consultant with the local branch of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. Frustrated by her own experiences seeking support for her autistic son Gabe, Lowrie renovated her garage and offered programming for three clients initially.

Demand soon forced her to find a larger space and just last month, she opened up a second location on Jefferson Avenue.

“This woman is a saint,” Rocheleau said. “She’s the closest thing to a saint I’ll ever meet in my life.”

Lowrie now has 50 clients, many of them youngsters with autism who lost much of their government funding when they turned 18.

“Finishing high school shouldn’t be a sad time,” Lowrie said. “They lose their paediatrician and all their social network. It should be a time to celebrate their lives. They can still contribute to society.”

Lowrie’s clients volunteer to clean books at the Tecumseh library. They also volunteer at the Unemployed Help Centre and Rose City Florist.

At either Jefferson Avenue location, they try yoga, dance and cooking.

There’s music therapy, pet therapy and outings to the movies.

“I like coming here,” 24-year-old Stephanie Basden said. “I’m learning to help out more.”

Basden, who has a learning disability, gets a kick out of the fact she can often entice some of the others into an activity.

“They listen to me not Ashley or Jody,” Basden said of Lowrie and Ashley DeWolfe, the agency’s director of programming.

DeWolfe has a masters’ degree in autism and special education.

The centre offers a three-to-one ratio of client to staff with the help of co-op students in related programs from St. Clair College, the University of Windsor, Trios College and the French school board.

Lowrie believes in sitting down with a family to formalize a plan that meets the needs of the individual client.

“It’s not a cookie cutter thing,” she said. “We put individual goals in place.”

Sometimes that means daily programming and sometimes it’s once-a-week care.

Lowrie is willing to tailor it accordingly and she’ll also work with families who have lost government funding and struggle with the financial demands associated with care.

“Many, many families struggle with what happens to a child when they finish high school,” said Liz Pendergast, the executive director of Community Services Coordination Network out of London. “Many families are looking for productive, constructive, skills-based programs like these.”

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The provincial government is working to shorten the wait list for service funding for young autistic adults through its Passport Program.

“We remain on target to eliminate the 2014 service registry for Passport by 2017-18.” said Josh Henry, media co-ordinator for the Ministry of Community and Social Services. “By the end of 2015/2016 we have provided new Passport funding to over 7,200 people, more than half way to our target of 13,000.”

MPP Lisa Gretzky (NDP-Windsor West) said Minister Helena Jaczek is not moving quickly enough.

Gretzky sent an open letter to Jaczek back in January asking her to eliminate wait lists.

“Funding has not been made available and the wait lists remain unacceptably long,” Gretzky said this week. “ I’m hearing from constituents who are becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of urgency Minister Jaczek is showing with this issue. They need the minister to act, and to act now.”

Whatever the pace of provincial reform, Lowrie knows demand for her service continues to increase. She has families driving in from Leamington and Kingsville, prompting her to consider adding a central county location in the future.

Via: The Windsor Star

Image Credit: TYLER BROWNBRIDGE / WINDSOR STAR