Deborah Thompson-Smith says working with her autistic son from a young age has helped her grow. (Picture by Christoff Griffith.)
Deborah Thompson-Smith is in a happy place today. That wasn’t always the case for the co-founder of Spectrum Possibilities, a charity whose aim is “to facilitate a shift in the paradigm of understanding and response to children, adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorders.”
A few years ago, she was relentless in trying to get other people to see that things could be done differently for children with autism. Today she is less frenetic, and after two years of homeschooling her now 14-year-old autistic son he is happy, thriving, and learning and she couldn’t be more pleased with his progress.
Sitting down with EASY on a warm afternoon during the month observed as Autism Awareness Month worldwide, she remembered those early days that she and her husband faced with a wry smile. As she spoke about her journey and her teenaged son, her eyes sparkled, and she smiled a lot.
Working with him and through his challenges as a family from a young age has helped her grow.
“The view that I had of my life was very limited compared to what it is now. I wanted to be a psychologist and I studied towards psychology in Canada and here. I had plans to go overseas and everything but, no offence to psychologists, I think I could do a lot more for more people with the issue with autism than I would have been doing sitting in a room with one person at a time.
“My son is at a better place. There was a time when every day was an emergency, especially when he was very sick. He would get ready for school and everything is ready and then he would vomit and . . . he couldn’t go to school that day. That was my life. Sending him to primary school in a pull-up and praying that he wouldn’t have an accident because he had a gastrointestinal problem. I was different then – that was stressful, scary, upsetting. Now, he’s at a much better place and I call him my buddy.
“I think I’m at a new place. When I first started the charity, I wanted to get everybody to understand that you could treat this thing, you could change your diet, you could do this.
“I was frustrated because I felt that if people could make certain changes they could see differences, like how I have seen differences but over time I’ve come to realise everybody has their own life to figure out and it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s not an easy thing.
“I am where I am as a mother with my son because of a lot of sacrifices and a lot of support. If you don’t have the resources to make those sacrifices, then you can’t do what I was suggesting that you do. You have to be able to afford a special diet . . . . If you can’t, it is stress.
“It is also me coming to respect that everyone has their own journey with autism. I’m still growing. I’m not there yet but everybody has their journey and everybody has their purpose. I think I found mine,” Deborah said, smiling.
Noting that her story “is a little different than most people’s”, she shared that her son’s autism started when he was two and a half years old.
“His symptoms started the same time as medical problems, severe gastrointestinal disorder. So, I have never had the opportunity to see his behaviour as cognitive or behavioural; I also saw it as medical. His symptoms were being observed around the same time as World Autism Awareness Day.
“Then, Larry King Live had a show with Jenny McCarthy and Holly Robinson-Peete and they were talking about autism in a different way; they were talking about the health problems that children with autism have and they kept talking about gastrointestinal problems and in Barbados even though I had raised that, it was like ‘nah, that’s nothing really’ or ‘it was in the first couple years children with autism have that’ but it wasn’t something that needed to be treated or something that needed to be addressed.
“So I tracked everything they were saying – that when we treated these things our children started to improve. So, I bought Jenny McCarthy’ book. I read it, I extracted every vitamin, every supplement, everything she said she ever gave her son, I ordered them, and I started giving my son. I started changing his diet and certain things started to change, just a little bit,” she recalled.
They removed gluten and dairy and he started making eye contact and started talking a little bit. Over the years, other things have been done, and she noted that with every change they made he did better.
Around that time, Deborah started watching webinars, one of which reminded her of a Lifetime movie she watched in the 1980s about a family who “recovered their son”.
She searched and found the movie, which led her to the Autism Treatment Centre of America.
The director, Raun Kaufman, was the child featured in the movie.
“My background was in psychology and I always learnt that autism was a lifelong, incurable disorder and there’s this man that this lifetime movie had been made on talking to me on the telephone about my son. I began and in the first year I had a different paradigm . . . . In that webinar he talked about going to a conference in Chicago called Autism One. I told my husband we have to drop everything and go to this conference because what these people are saying I have to see,” she said.
They attended and were impressed. Her mind shifted beyond what she was taught and what she was being told in Barbados to seeing there were new possibilities. They spoke to different parents and got a lot of information in different areas.
While Barbados is “behind by ten to 15 years on treatment, not speech therapy, not occupational therapy, but medical treatment”, she said her “life is different because I have a different way of seeing things” and she faced challenges over the years. She is very grateful to everyone who assisted her family.
“My son still has autism. He has gone from having classic autism with no language, no eye contact, very low on social skills to now performing in Mustard Seed [Kids]. He’s asking me a lot of questions right now because he is homeschooled, whatever is in his mind at the time, to have a response right now.
“His personality and his confidence has gone through such a burst since we started homeschooling and it’s harder on me to be sacrificing – it’s the best thing ever for him.
“He gets to be himself. I’m not judging him, I’m not telling him sit down and keep quiet or that we can’t talk about that right now. I’m answering every question when he asks it, no matter how complicated.”
Deborah added that through homeschooling, he filled in “a lot of gaps from when he was four, eight, nine” and also developed his musical skills as he could read music and play the violin and recorder. (GBM)