Mike Parker, who works with children with special needs in Nanaimo, was 28 years old with a bachelor of science when he started with the ministry in May 1989.
A child-and-youth worker, Mike began working with the ministry during the era of de-institutionalization during the late 1970s and 1980s. This laid the groundwork for the closing of Woodlands Institution in New Westminster in 1996.
At that time, not all children were integrated into classrooms. Autism spectrum disorder was not commonly understood. Mental illness was still a taboo subject in everyday conversation. Stigma was rampant.
“I thought I was going to feel sorry for families with special needs kids, might not able to be helpful, and would feel overwhelmed,” said Mike, a father of two, who is originally from Powell River.
He now knows that families know their children best. Often, the families know the answers, but need reassurance. He says families sometimes want him to tell them what to do, or where to go for support. But each situation is unique. In his role, suggesting a particular support service is about enhancing both the child’s experience and the family’s.
Child-and-youth special needs workers within the ministry serve three populations: those that have children with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder; children considered to be medically fragile with extensive, acute and chronic health needs; and children with a variety of intellectual disabilities.
“There’s a lot of grief for some parents when they learn of their child’s condition,” Mike said. “Some parents never get over it. Others seem more able to make a shift. Some parents are amazing advocates, and sometimes fear gets in the way of parents keeping pace with their child’s development. Often, they’re afraid to let the child test their ability to overcome hurdles in the real world.”
He thinks about a young boy, who was born in Canada to a mother who had arrived from a refugee camp in Southeast Asia. The child was born with severe developmental disabilities. The child could not speak and would throw temper tantrums out of frustration. The mother kept asking when her son was going to speak. “I had to tell her that I didn’t think he’d ever speak," Mike said. "Around 10 years of age, I got him set up with an augmentative computer system. He could use it to express his needs to his mother. He could have some interaction with other kids at school. It opened his world.”
Mike says, regardless of a diagnosis, having hope helps parents cope with their day-to-day challenges.
After interacting with more than 1,000 families over the years, he’s learned that developing a trusting relationship is key, so families can feel safe in sharing their story. The families who seem to manage best have common approaches. “They go with the flow,” Mike said. “They have realistic expectations. They don’t immediately limit their expectations for the child. They learn to ask a lot of questions, and they’re willing to hear what other professionals have to say. At the same time, they begin to put plans in place for the future."
For almost 30 years, Mike has seen how families living with children who have special needs can experience great joy and unexpected shifts in understanding. And while their children's unique needs can present formidable challenges, they can also offer greater insights about how compassion and the word “ability” gets defined.
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