On the spectrum

Paul Herridge
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Autism awareness continues to grow as more children diagnosed

Dawn Smith said she had a feeling right from birth something wasn’t quite right with her daughter, Emma, now 11, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.

Dawn Smith with her daughter Emma, 11, are pictured in the basement of their Boat Harbour home. Emma, who was diagnosed with autism just before her fourth birthday, calls the room her office and spends hours on the computer there. Paul Herridge Photo

“Some people might say, ‘You’re crazy to say that,’ but it was always a gut feeling.”

As time passed, developmentally, everything seemed fine and for the most part Emma was on par with everyone else around her age until vocabulary entered the picture.

Confiding in friends or family, Mrs. Smith was told not to worry, Emma’s speech would improve. It didn’t.

So she decided to mention it to a public health nurse during a three-year checkup.

“It just kind of snowballed from there.”

Before a trip to the Janeway in St. John’s, where Emma had been referred for an assessment, Mrs. Smith, who lives in Boat Harbour with her husband Glenn, started doing her own research.

In a book she had been given explaining what to expect in a child’s toddler years, the word ‘autism’ jumped off the page at her. Still, she decided wait to see what professionals had to say.

Not long afterwards a psychologist in Burin was the first to use it to describe her daughter.

Just before her fourth birthday, Emma was diagnosed with the disorder.

“It was disappointment, but it was kind of like, ‘Okay, now we know, so what are we going to do about it?”


Deriving from the Greek word ‘autos’, meaning ‘self’, the term ‘autism’ first came into use about a hundred years ago.

According to the Autism Canada Foundation, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurobiological condition that impacts normal brain development, causing communication problems, difficulty with routine social interactions and a tendency to repeat specific patterns of behaviour.

ASD can affect the normal function of the gastrointestinal, immune, hepatic, endocrine and nervous systems. Because symptoms of the disorder can vary so widely from person to person, it has come to be referred to as a ‘spectrum’.

According to Health Canada, approximately one in every 150 children in the country is born with autism.

Derrick and Mary Hanrahan’s son Tristan, 7, was diagnosed with autism at age two. In 2009 the Little Bay, Marystown, couple decided to start a support group for parents on the Burin Peninsula and have seen it grow since then.

The Hanrahans opened a room in the basement of their home as a resource centre, and with support from Targa Newfoundland, were able to add to the collection of materials and technology available last year.

Mr. Hanrahan, who is currently running for a position on the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Board of Directors, estimated there are between 20-30 autistic children on the peninsula and several young adults with “more being diagnosed all along.”

“It was disappointment, but it was kind of like, ‘Okay, now we know, so what are we going to do about it.” – Dawn Smith


Although the word may be a century old, Mrs. Smith, like many people, was largely unfamiliar with it until her own daughter was diagnosed. That is changing.

While autism is known to run in families a debate, over the cause that generally falls under two main categories of thought, continues.

“You hear about it almost every day, and the numbers are increasing more and more each day, and you wonder why? I sometimes really think it’s genetic and more times I think it has to be something environmental.”

Looking back, Mrs. Smith recalled a young man she went to school with who, knowing what she knows now, was most likely autistic.

“I think autism is more easily diagnosed today than what it was years ago. We didn’t know. We just knew there was something different. He had some type of disability.”

Noting she doesn’t like to compare Emma to other children with autism, she said she considers her daughter to be “middle of the road” on the spectrum.

“I sometimes think I’m lucky because Emma could be so much lower on the scale than what she is. Verbally today, if Emma was to come upstairs now and she wanted something, she would probably have no trouble telling me what her needs were.”

Her mother acknowledged Emma, who attends a full day of school at Christ the King School in Rushoon, participates in both regular classes and some alternate courses.

“She loves to go to school. She enjoys being there. She’s not a real social kid, and that’s part of being autistic, but she really enjoys being in school.”


Mrs. Smith is an active member with the parents’ support group and said it has been a big help.

“There could be a lot more people involved in the group, but I guess kind of in their own time.”

October is Autism Awareness Month in Newfoundland and Labrador.

This past Sunday, the parents’ support group hosted its third ‘Walk for Autism’ at the Marystown Track and Field Complex.


Organizations: Autism Canada Foundation, Health Canada, Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador King School

Geographic location: Burin, Little Bay, Marystown Rushoon Newfoundland and Labrador

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