Teaching autistic kids how to excel

Penticton Centre for Exceptional Learning (Penticton EXCEL) is helping kids with high functioning autism spectrum disorder.

Daniel Struthers quickly got the hang of the Penticton Centre for Exceptional Learning cloth swing.

Daniel Struthers quickly got the hang of the Penticton Centre for Exceptional Learning cloth swing.

Fixing a hole in the wall at Carrie Ferguson’s place of non-profit business is not an uncommon occurrence.

In fact, on any given day there is plenty of yelling and screaming coming from the rooms at the Penticton Centre for Exceptional Learning (Penticton EXCEL) on Skaha Lake Road.

That’s because the young students — Ferguson calls them “kiddos” —  have what is known as high functioning autism spectrum disorder.

People with that diagnosis are at an opposite end of the autism spectrum, usually having average or above average intelligence, but lacking somewhat in the social graces.

“It’s people who are intelligent, but just a little quirky,” said Ferguson. “Many of our students come to us with shattered egos. They may have been picked on, bullied, suspended, or expelled, so their self-worth and confidence might be quite low. They have a hard time making friends, keeping friends, knowing how much to talk, what or what not to talk about.

“A lot of people don’t even know they have autism. It is a hidden disability, it doesn’t come out until it really comes out and then people are surprised at the meltdowns that can happen.”

Ferguson’s reason for starting the centre was very personal. Her young son Tucker has autism and she had to pull him from public school to prevent self harm.

She began taking him to a centre in Kelowna but the daily drive became too hard on the family and so they decided to move closer to the facility.

However, after talking with her good friend Janice Meyer’s sister, who ran a similar centre in Kamloops, and after much research, Ferguson decided to start her own place.

While they were granted full charitable status before the doors opened, raising money was a struggle with most of the funds coming from “generous friends and family.”

Her mother, Dr. Marilynne Waithman, who currently teaches Masters students in the Department of Eduction at UBC where she earned her doctorate, became and remains president of the EXCEL board.

It was that compassion and very real knowledge of what parents of autistic children go through that guided Ferguson in her journey to make the centre a reality.

And helping with those meltdowns is one of the main goals Ferguson and her staff use to educate the young people at EXCEL.

“On Tuesday we got another hole in the wall, someone who was still figuring it out,” she said. “Instead of having the kiddo suspended and making it a big shameful thing, the next day is a new day, start over. OK that didn’t work yesterday so how do we not make that happen again?

“They’re not doing it to be bad or trying to get attention, it’s because they haven’t figured out how to calm themselves down. We’re here to give them the tools and a safe space where they can make mistakes and come back and we’re still all friends.”

That includes two calming rooms where kids can go as they begin to understand their own feelings and recognize the warning signs.

Both rooms have sensory lighting and one has a large frame with hundreds of plastic “bubbles” where kids (and staff) can cool off in the bubble bath.

As well, there is a gym area with climbing wall in which Ferguson has “sneakily” incorporated some academic learning tools. A kitchen, study room, living and office space round out the centre.

Since opening in September of 2015 with 12 spaces, the facility has grown to twice that number with five spaces still available.

“Our staff work to build trust with our students. We need staff who will crawl under a table to play, who will come up with creative ways to incorporate sensory needs and movement into academics,” said Ferguson who requires team players with endless energy and are able to think on their feet.  “Once the children feel accepted and valued, their confidence rises and they just bloom.”

There are currently a staff of seven full-time and one part-time.

Tracy Franklin is the mother of two autistic daughters aged six and eight, who she enrolled in the centre last Christmas after the family moved to Penticton from Nelson.

“It was kind of throw-all-your-eggs-in-one basket, leap-of-faith-kind of thing,” said Franklin who describes the people, clients and staff at the centre as family. “We bought a house sight unseen and threw everything on a truck and got here Dec. 28 and I’m really glad I did it because it’s been incredible.

“Kestra and Kamari are doing really well, they’re thriving academically, they’re making friends. The support isn’t there in the public schools, especially for the higher functioning kids, they can present so ‘normal,’ but when things go sideways, they really go sideways.”

Through the centre’s help, she sees her daughters growing as individuals, having greater social interaction and more independence.

Alana Struthers is another mom who has seen dramatic changes in her son Daniel, 9, whose been at the centre since it opened.

“The (public) school he went to was wonderful but he just really struggled. He hated going and would hide, it was just a struggle to get him into the school,” recalled Struthers. “Now, he’s happy to go everyday, he runs to school. He’s just much more confident and calm. It’s just been amazing for him and it’s just taken the stress off the whole family.”

While the centre is not a school it does follow prescribed B.C. Education Ministry curriculum and has a certified teacher.

As well, to fully meet the needs of students, there is a partnership with behaviour consultants, occupational, speech and language therapists along with social skills training.

The program is offered Monday to Friday from early September to late June. For more information www.pentictonexcel.com.