Exclusive Interview: Canadian Member of Parliament Mike Lake & Son Jaden Talk About Autism with Dr. Pola Rosen
Transcribed By Erica Anderson
Dr. Pola Rosen (PR): Mike, you are not only a member of Canadian parliament, but you’re the parent of an autistic child. Jaden is 16 years old now. I know that you’ve sometimes had about 36 hours per week of special tutoring and behavior modeling for Jaden. What are some of the things that you’ve learned about autism?
Mike Lake, member of Canadian parliament (ML): Jaden was diagnosed at 2 ½. We live in Alberta province in Canada, probably one of the best jurisdictions in the country to live if you have a child with autism for getting treatment. Back then, they were funding all 36 hours a week. What that looked like was aides, usually university students, taking 3 - 9 hours a week in a team of five that rotated. At the beginning, Jaden couldn’t pay attention to anything. So literally it was putting a spoon on the table and saying “Jaden, give me the spoon,” and he would look around anywhere in the room except at the spoon or the person talking to him. And then the aide would grab his hand, put it on top of the spoon and then put it in their hand, and make him hand it over. Then they would give him a treat to reinforce that that was a good thing. That was how it started.
PR: What are some of the behaviors that you’ve had to overcome?
ML: There’s a whole bunch. First thing was to try to get him connected. I think when you look back at those early days in terms of therapy and treatment—Jaden, do you remember that? Working with all of the different people who would come over and work with you one-on-one and they would make you hand them things and they would practice different things with you? That connection, the fact that he looks at me and is able to connect and is understanding what I’m saying, to a large degree. He understands the people and the concrete things. Those are things he had no connection whatsoever when he was younger. A lot of people comment that it’s a little bit unusual for people with autism that Jaden can connect like he can. He may have a lot of challenges in other areas but one of the real strengths he has is that connectedness. His pediatrician, about six years ago, after about 7 ½ years of therapy and then school, she commented that he was a completely different kid because of it.
PR: I think one of the unusual things that I’ve noticed about Jaden is that he’s so affectionate and so kind. How did he go from a non-reactive child to the loving and kissing teenager that I see now?
ML: The not kissing was probably similar to the not talking, in that it’s probably more of a muscle thing. He actually was still as affectionate, but up until he was 11 he couldn’t make the smacking sound. It was a little bit before that that he wound up building that sort of connection with us. Part of that is the intervention, and a lot of it has to do with my wife Debbie and the way we are as a family, we wouldn’t let him get away with not connecting. We made him hug and we made sure that he wasn’t allowed to just get in his own space all the time. Parents of kids with autism will know what we’re talking about. Some kids respond differently than others, Jaden is just one person with autism.
PR: It’s a spectrum. But some of the children have severe temper tantrums, they go into rages. Some of them need everything in their room or their life to be organized in a very particular order.
ML: Tantrums are not so much an issue for him now. But even now if he gets frustrated he’ll grind his teeth and he’ll go for a little run and squeal pretty loudly. We figured that’s because he’s frustrated that he can’t express himself. He likes to put things in order, but it doesn’t completely disrupt everything about his routine if it’s not. On the positive side, people with autism may love to organize and to put things away. If my wife is doing laundry, Jaden loves to help her; she’ll fold things and give them to Jaden and send him to whatever room it’s supposed to go in and he just races up the stairs with a smile on his face, putting the things where they belong.
PR: What about cooking?
ML: Jaden, do you like to make cookies in the kitchen? And follow the recipe? His favorite show in the world is a cooking show.
PR:What are some of the things that Jaden does at school?
ML: I often say that the connections he has at school are as important for the other kids as they are for Jaden. He’s been in a regular classroom all the way through, he’s in grade 11 right now. He was focused on the same academic level until about grade four. Then everything was more modified for him because he has real difficulty with abstract things.
But one of the things that is really awesome about the school that he’s in right now is that last year, when he was in grade 10, the students and the teachers decided that they wanted to include Jaden in the musical theater. They thought it would be good for him and Jaden loved it. They took special care to find what scenes he could be in, mostly group scenes. They even put him in some of the dancing scenes and taught him some of the choreography. They had students who were specially assigned to help him. What a wonderful experience for Jaden, you can tell as I talk about it, he just loved the experience. But it’s also a great experience for the kids to learn how to include him. He’s in a K-12 school, so many of these kids have been with him all along; they love him, they protect him.
PR:Is he mainstreamed or is he in a special class?
ML: He’s in a regular class with a full-time aid. Obviously every circumstance is different and every child with autism is unique, but for Jaden, it works to have him in a regular classroom. The school system has always provided a full-time aid for him right from the start because the danger with Jaden is that he might decide that he wants to go swimming in the middle of the day. He knows where the swimming pools are and he knows how to get there, but he’s not aware of traffic. We’ve always emphasized there’s a need to have someone watching him and helping him with his program and they’ve always been fantastic.
PR: The transition period is something that has been of great concern in special education here in the United States. What are some of your concerns when Jaden reaches the age of 19? A lot of the kids in this nation are phasing out of services at that point in their lives, and parents don’t know what to do.
ML: In Canada most of those services are provided at the provincial level. My advice to parents is always to advocate, to go and talk to your elected officials, but not just to set up a meeting. They’ll often say “I can’t take my child with me or my loved one with me.” If your child is acting up, acting like they do every day and causing issues that you deal with every day, you’re communicating better than you ever could if you were just saying words.
People need to see people with autism. People get elected because they want to help people. When they’re educated on what autism is they’re going to find solutions. I would really encourage parents to get out there and have those types of conversations.
Jaden is 16 years old and we are focused on where he can contribute. Part of his schooling is his aid takes him to the public library where he works two or three times a week. He can sort the books, he loves it, he can scan them in the computer, he can run them out to the shelves and put them where they belong.
But of course there are challenges; Jaden isn’t always aware of other people when he’s pushing the cart around so he needs someone to watch him. We have to try and figure out ways to mitigate those things and be able include these people’s strengths and at the same time deal with some of the challenges that we know exist here. #