Autism Awareness Month: Creating a safe world for Gadane

All Woman

WHEN Gavin and Shannika Plowright welcomed their first son, Gadane, into the world in January 2017, they were over the moon with excitement. Like everything else, they expected parenthood to have its ups and downs, and they looked forward to overcoming them together. But even though they had their eyes open to any possibility, nothing could have prepared the couple for the realisation that Gadane was autistic.

“When it was time for his two-year-old check-up, there was also a parent teachers' meeting at his school the same day, so my wife took him to the doctor and I went to the school. Ironically, when we met that night we had both received similar reports,” Gavin shared. “His teacher had told me that she noticed something different about Gadane, and she thinks that we should have him assessed.”

“The doctor didn't tell me much, because she didn't want to worry me, but she said based on her observation of his behavior in the office — spinning, humming and flapping — she suspected that he may be autistic,” Shannika chimed in. “She said he wasn't showing a lot of signs, but just enough for her to be concerned.”

Having their son assessed was not as simple as the doctor and teacher made it sound, however. The parents started calling around, and found themselves on several waiting lists. Gadane was not officially diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder until last year, when he was three years old.

“During the waiting period, we were still in denial, still hoping and saying every child develops differently. He had tantrums, terrible tantrums. He gave us trouble when we went anywhere, but we were still in denial,” the mother recalled. “After we finally saw the specialist and he was diagnosed, I started crying, because I was like really? Why? Having a child, I didn't look forward to this.”

Upon hearing the news, the father began to question God, even blaming himself for his son's condition.

“I was angry with God, because in the nights I would go into Gadane's room and pray over him. I was traumatised. I even blamed myself for my son having autism, because I remembered that when it was time to get him vaccinated, the paediatrician had recommended additional vaccines, but I was adamant that he should have only received the minimum. I thought I could have somehow prevented it.”

But with time the family began to adjust to the news, even as they anticipated the arrival of their second son, Galeel, who was born last November. Their next hurdle on the path of Gadane's development, after acceptance, would be finding assistance.

“My mind was more focused on where I could go to fix this,” Gavin admitted. “But reality soon hit me that it's not something that can be fixed. I got educated and found out that it's a spectrum disorder, so there are no two persons who experience the same wavelength of autism, so there is nobody that could really tell me what is going to happen. At one point I got confused. I started to make a lot of calls. We needed to seek therapy, get behaviour and speech therapy. We've been on waiting lists since he was two, and we still haven't gotten some callbacks.”

It has been a frustrating and financially exhausting process for the family, as they soon realised that the resources for children with special needs in Jamaica are woefully lacking.

“It was not an easy journey to get Gadane where he is now. After going to a behavioural expert to get him assessed, we had the task to find a school. We went to a couple of places, both government entities and private entities, and for me as a parent who was just learning about autism, it seemed to me that they themselves were just learning about autism,” the father recalled in frustration.

He lamented the lack of compassion and sensitivity that many people, even those who should know better, have towards children with special needs.

“He had gastroenteritis and we had to take him to the hospital, and just to check his weight was a challenge. There was no tolerance from the staff to deal with him,” he bemoaned. “As a parent, that hurt me, because I felt like these institutions are supposed to be equipped to handle this situation, because I'm sure that he is not the first autistic child, and he won't be the last. That let me realise that I have to go above and beyond as a parent for my child, because my country that I live in is not yet equipped to deal with this.”

But until the world is ready to accept Gadane, the Plowrights have adjusted their lives to create a safe world for him in their home to boost his development.

“We try,” Shannika said simply. “We have good days, bad days, and terrible days, but we try to push through. When I'm having a really hard time with him, I always try to calm myself down and look at the bigger picture. He is currently in speech and behaviour therapy. Slowly but surely we are seeing improvements. We try our best to give him all that we can give him to meet his needs.”

The parents have also become two more Jamaican voices that are actively advocating for more awareness and acceptance of autism.

“We really have to push for autism awareness, because a lot of persons still don't know what autism is,” the mother said, recalling an instance when her son had a meltdown in a store and another woman made disparaging remarks about him. “You will see me on the road struggling with my child. You might be in the supermarket and see a parent with a child that is acting out and say he is rude, and you don't have a clue what's happening. It could be an autistic child having a meltdown. Instead of judging, you can offer some support. You never know.”

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