Autism is a neurological disorder that impacts brain development. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) it is estimated that 1 in 66 children suffer from autism in Canada.
Children and adults that suffer from autism experience communication problems, difficulty with social interactions and a tendency to repeat specific behavioural patterns. There are also often restrictions when it comes it activities and interests. Individuals who suffer from autism have varying degrees and combinations of symptoms and differ in their needs, skills and abilities, so treatment must be specific to the individual. Studies have shown that early diagnosis of autism can lead to the most optimal outcomes.
Chris and Brianne Brown of Beslea Farms live in Eastern Ontario with their 5 children, where they milk 100 cows, both Holstein and Jersey. Their youngest son Chase, who is almost 7, was diagnosed with autism at 2 ½ years of age. “It was a blessing that he is the youngest of our kids,” says Brianne, “because then when he didn’t reach a milestone we noticed right away. That isn’t always the case in some families, but the sooner we can help these kids the better.”
The road to receiving a diagnosis for Chase was not an easy one. “You constantly have to advocate for your child and push. You can’t take no for an answer,” says Brianne. “You’re often told that you’re ‘overreacting’ but if I’d just listened to the doctors who said that, we’d be way further behind.” Once a diagnosis is given, many avenues open up for good things to happen in the area of therapy and how services are administered various between provinces.
In Ontario, Intense Behavioural Intervention (IBI) is one of the services available for autistic kids. However, two years ago, the provincial government in the province decided that IBI was only necessary for kids up to age 5 and decided to remove funding for the service when a child reached that age. “It was an outrageous decision,” says Brianne. “I’ve seen first-hand the difference that IBI made in my child’s life and it absolutely continues to be necessary after 5.” Brianne was not alone, parents of autistic children across the province were also furious. In response, a group of parents got together and formed the Ontario Autism Coalition.
The Coalition made it their mission to protest the decision by showing up at local MP offices, holding rallies, putting up posters and drawing attention via radio and television interviews. “We were a thorn in their sides,” says Brianne, who gave a speech at Queen’s Park in Toronto, in April 2016, on behalf of the parents of autistic children, in front of a huge crowd. The speech received tremendous media attention and was followed with several newspaper, radio and T.V. interviews for Brianne. “It really put me out of my comfort zone,” she said, “but when your child is involved your inner ‘mama bear’ comes out and you do whatever it takes.”
Six months later that Ontario provincial government overturned their decision. Now children in Ontario can receive funded services until they are 18 years old. “It was an unbelievable day,” says Brianne. “We’ve had a lot of successes showing cows, but if you were to ask me what I’m most proud of its this: that a group of a grassroots parents with no funding were determined enough to change the future for their kids and did not give up. And we won.”
Since then, Brianne continues to be an advocate for autism in a big way, saying “two feelings arise from having an autistic child: guilt and hopelessness. You feel guilty because you have a perfectly healthy child physically who is not suffering from a terminal disease, but at the same time there are days when you can’t help but ask ‘why me?’ You feel hopeless because this will be every day for the rest of your kid’s life and there’s nothing you can do about it. You want to do everything you can, but the fact is that autism can’t be cured.”
Being an advocate for autism has allowed Brianne to channel the hopeless feeling into something positive. She now helps people who are at the beginning of their journey with a newly diagnosed autistic child on a regular basis with both technical and emotional support. “It is incredibly overwhelming at the beginning,” says Brianne. “You don’t know where to turn and its nice for people to know they aren’t going through this process alone.”
The farm has been an excellent tool for the Brown family as well when it comes to Chase. “It helps us push him,” says Brianne, “it’s so easy to be complacent and just let him play on his iPad or do other things like that, but that doesn’t help him at all.” Chase participated in his second show a couple months ago, showing a little Jersey calf. “Chase wouldn’t be as social or as verbal as he is without the farm,” says Brianne, “it’s 100% because of the farm and the support of the ag community.”