Friday, September 8, 2017

This mom broke the social isolation of autism

By Louise Kinross

Charlie Castro is a happy, social 7-year-old who loves elevators, math and reading. But his autism makes it impossible to filter out the everyday noises of modern life.

“He’ll be having a great time, and then he gets a blast of an overhead announcement or a cell phone rings, and he has a meltdown,” says Charlie’s mom Karen. “We have to remove him and he misses out on the fun—again and again and again.”

Four years ago, “I couldn’t stand the isolation Charlie was experiencing,” Karen says.

So she started Play Dates, a Scarborough, Ont. support group for parents of children with autism and other physical and developmental disabilities.

She invited parents from the Holland Bloorview nursery school Charlie attended. In the early days, the group would arrange a trip to the zoo or island or a play date at someone’s home.

“We had this moment where there were six of us sitting in one of the mom’s homes and we realized, for the very first time, that we were relaxed,” Karen recalls. “Our children hadn’t changed, but for the first time I’d let my spine settle into a chair, and I wasn’t jumping up to apologize or correct Charlie or pull him off something.”

This feeling of comfort was a surprise, because parents didn’t experience it when they took their kids to parks or regular children’s programs. In mainstream settings, “they’re worried about whether their child will be judged, or they’ll be judged,” Karen explains. “It’s painful and traumatic when you don’t feel there’s anywhere you can go with your child where you’re welcome and your child is safe.”

Karen, a self-described dreamer, has parlayed her Play Dates ideas into a weekly, protected drop-in for the group at a double gym at the East Scarborough Boys and Girls Club (jumpy castle, balls and ride-on toys included); a series of five summer soccer lessons where each child had a one-on-one volunteer; professional guest speakers for parents; and birthday and holiday parties at family homes. They even have hair-cutting parties so that when one child wants to take a break, another can jump in the chair.

Saturday drop-ins draw 14 to 20 parents and up to 40 children, and over 200 people follow Play Dates on Facebook. One family drives in from Milton. Brothers and sisters are always welcome. Most parents are moms, but some dads participate. Most events are free.

The East Scarborough Boys and Girls Club hired a part-time disability studies student to help manage the Saturday group. “I don’t ask anything from people,” Karen says. “You don’t have to bring lasagna, and you don’t have to do any preparation. It’s come when you can.”

Many of the participants are immigrant families whose kids have hit a service wall, Karen says. “When English is a second language, things happen so much more slowly for them. It’s shocking. I could tell you stories that would curl your hair. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about heroism from some of the obstacles these families face.”

Karen says Play Dates helps parents see they’re not alone, and educates them on services that are available to their kids.

“This is an opportunity for people to talk, to share information, and for the kids to just be together and to be who they are. I hope other parents will consider doing this.”


Great job Karen. We need more like you to make this world a better place.